Internet freedom in Thailand is taking another hit. In the past dozen years, regardless of whether in the hands of red shirts or yellow shirts, the government has throttled ’Net liberty. Now it’s the military’s turn. As part of a coup d’état last month, the military has prioritized internet censorship in its attempt to sway and control public opinion. One outcome is that users in the country will likely turn in greater numbers than before to VPNs and proxies.
With 34% of the internet population already using such tools, it is likely that these numbers will soar in response to the repression of the new regime. The army has ’asked for the cooperation” of the seemingly always compliant Thai ISP’s to block more than 200 new web sites including independent sites. Fearing that a free information flow will pose challenges to the military’s rule, the military, under the auspices of the newly formed National Peace and Order Maintaining Council, has declared an information war.
As stated, government censorship in Thailand is nothing new. For more than a decade harsh ’lése majesté laws have prohibited criticizing the monarch. Now Thai police maintain that even ’liking’ an online message critical of the new military junta is a crime. The Open Net Initiative (ONI) reports that
’What is more alarming is how members of online communities (are) engaged in cyber witch-hunting using lése majesté as a powerful rationale to publicly condemn and reprimand those who represent dissenting opinions…[The] central focus of this blocking is on political content related to the red shirts and Thai language content.’
It has been reported that as of 2010 more than 110,000 websites were censored. This is up from about 34,000 just four years earlier. The trend is alarming. Censorship is largely performed by Thailand’s 54 ISPs who accede to block sites demanded by the Royal Thai Police, The Communication Authority of Thailand and the Authority of Information and Communication Technology. Thus it is of little surprise that the military is successfully able to easily pressure the ISPs to adhere to their regime of controls.
Years ago, censorship predominantly was aimed at mostly pornographic sites. That rapidly morphed into censorship of political content under undemocratic leadership. One of these regimes passed the Computer Crime Act. This was a broad law that created severe penalties for so-called cyber crimes. It placed criminal liability on any intermediary who allowed unlawful content to be distributed. These included comments critical of the king- lése majesté. As mentioned, this ’crime’ was frequently used to suppress political dissent from all sides of Thailand’s political spectrum.
Offline criticism of increased internet censorship is being stymied too. The round-up of dissenters has been all encompassing. Neither prominent bloggers, journalists, academics or politicians have escaped the dragnet. Ordinary individuals have been detained without charge and held at army camps. They are threatened with further reprisals for criticizing or challenging the regime.
As intimated at the outset and throughout, internet censorship in Thailand is nothing new. Again, just look at the VPN user numbers. The previous government of Yingluck Shinawatra was also guilty of repressive tactics. Sites critical of Yingluck were closed. Facebook ’Likes’ and social media sharing were deemed to be criminal acts.
Overall, funding for censorship was increased. So regardless of who’s in charge, Thailand is regressing when it comes to internet freedom. The tumultuous political landscape is detrimental to economic growth for sure. But the absence of internet freedom is a death knell for the future of democracy in the country no matter what the make-up of the government is.
Check our article on 5 Best VPNs for Thailand, which includes a detailed look at the censorship situation up until January this year.