Big Brother is alive and active in Thailand’s slice of cyber-space.
On the third floor of the Royal Thai Police headquarters in Bangkok a small windowless room serves as ground-zero for Thailand’s Cyber Security Operation Center’s Office of Prevention and Suppression of Information Technology Crimes. It’s task: to hunt down and punish those who use internet technology to dis the royal family or who pose a threat to national security, which often are considered one and the same. Less than a dozen technicians man the war room, scouring thousands of websites, Facebook pages, and tweets night and day, aided by web crawlers in their efforts to hunt down violators of the country’s lese majeste laws.
Theirs is a herculean task. Earlier this month it was announced that there are more Facebook users in Bangkok – 9,294,140 – than anywhere else on the planet. And Thailand as a whole ranks as the country with the 16th largest number of Facebook users in the world. That’s a lot of pages and a lot of users to police. Especially since doing nothing more than clicking a ‘Like’ button on a page the government deems in violation of the law is considered as serious of a lese majeste offense as publishing it.
Every single day, the Thai government is spending almost 1.5 million baht to block undesirable websites and close down web content. From a mere few million baht start-up back in 2001, the annual budget for Thailand’s efforts to police internet use in the country has grown to over half a billion baht. And the new government under Prime Minister Yingluck has upped the ante. The government intends on purchasing a 400 million baht lawful interception (LI) system, which will allow the Ministry to prey on all forms of voice communications, e-mails, SMS messages, forums, and chat rooms. Boosted with extra personnel and a rapidly growing budget, if it’s digital Thailand’s government will have control over it.
The funds dedicated to enforcing the Kingdom’s Computer Crimes Act could go far in providing a better internet for its citizens. Instead, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is investing a lot of money in a worse and slower internet by putting a filter on every connection from inside Thailand. Logging onto the Web in Bangkok means excruciatingly slow page loads thanks to the firewalls and blocking policies instituted by the government that strangle internet speeds.
You’d think the most popular website in Thailand would be the one showing the latest pix of Chris Brown’s dick, John Travolta in drag, or the latest celebrity sex video. But they are not. The most viewed page, though often it is nothing more than a blank screen, is w3.mict.go.th. This is where your browser is redirected when you hit a site Thailand’s cyber-squad has blocked. And since many sites are blocked by robots, they often make little sense.
Censorship questions aside, websites covering controversial issues or those which may fall under the “insulting to the royal family” heading make sense. Blocking editorial sites, such as the Huffington Post, which may criticize Thailand’s government make sense too. But free email account sites, free e-card sites, and major airline ticketing sites? Even if you are not browsing a suspect site, your request has to go through the ministry’s filter for approval to ensure that it is not on the banned list. While connectivity is speeding up everywhere else in the world, in Thailand it’s slowing down. ‘Thai time’ takes on a whole new meaning when you are surfing the internet in Bangkok.
In many ways, Thailand is a beacon of computer technology, with a huge computer-component manufacturing industry and a vibrant online culture which, in part, was why Prime Minister Yingluck campaigned on a pledge of free public Wi-fi and her One Tablet per Child initiative. And the new ICT Minister, Anudith Nakornthap, is pushing for broadband internet prices of 300 baht per month, half the current rate, to increase accessibility and support the local ICT industry at large. But the government’s efforts have been largely spent on enforcing the Computer Crimes Act, the stringent pursuit of which the Minister Anudith urged officials and staff members on every level to adopt. His people listened. As of 2011, and since the Computer Crimes Act became effective, 70,000 web sites have been blocked. And currently the country bans as many as 100,000 websites for posting content allegedly offensive to the King.
Since Prime Minister Yingluck came to power the efforts of the Cyber Security Operation Center (CSOC) have expanded. Minister Anudith has said that since August his ministry has demanded Facebook alone remove over 86,000 pages which the ministry believed to violate Thai law. It’s no surprise that the first international government to endorse Twitter’s move to allow censorship of tweets last January was Thailand.
The government likes to refer to the CSOC as the war room, which while as a sound-bite sounds tough as though the country is preparing for a major battle, actually shines the light on how problems are viewed in the Kingdom. The Computer Crimes war room is not unique, there is also a war room to battle the country’s mosquito problem. Another war room is dealing with the country’s deforestation problem. Back in February Thailand’s National Police Bureau set up a war room at the Khlong Ton police station to investigate the terrorist who accidently blew off his leg in Bangkok. There is even a war room for dealing with graft; Yingluck considers anti-corruption measures an urgent policy. And the war room set up to deal with the floods last autumn proved that going into full-battle mode isn’t always the best option.
When you view every problem as a nail, a hammer is the only tool you know. For policing its citizen’s internet use Thailand’s hammer is getting bigger. 50 investigators are being added to the CSOC’s staff. And while crimes including harassment and pornography are being investigated too, the emphasis is on lese majeste violations, offenses deemed so sensitive that evidence gathered is kept in a sealed room.
“The first priority is the monarchy. And, the other contents are important too, but the priority is later,” said computer technical officer Narongdej Watcharapasorn.
Last December, Minister Anudith warned Thai Internet users that clicking “like” or “share” features on Facebook pages with perceived content that insults the Thai monarchy could be considered a crime. He said that even repeating details of an alleged offense on Facebook is illegal under the lese majeste law and the related Computer Crimes Act which says that spreading illegal content, either directly or indirectly, is a crime. And that applies to both Thai nationals and foreign visitors.
“Anyone who is accused can be prosecuted, even foreigners using the Internet outside of Thailand,” said Anudith. “If a foreigner abroad clicks ‘share’ or clicks ‘like,’ then the Thai law has no jurisdiction over that, but if there is a lawsuit filed and that person then comes into Thailand for a holiday, then that person will be prosecuted.”
An anonymous ICT Ministry official told an international news agency that Thais who received anti-monarchy messages by email or on their Facebook page and failed to delete them were also in violation. “We would take them to court and prosecute them,” said the official. “It is against the law to do such a thing and as a result, they will be fined and jailed.”
Those responsible for the country’s front-line defense – or offense depending on how you view it – and it’s daily operations to hunt down lesse majeste, pornography, and cyber fraud violations report they are being pressured from all sides. The CSOC receives anywhere from 20 to 100 e-mailed complaints a day. Some complain about the connectivity problems caused by the cyber surveillance unit’s efforts. Others feel the government is not doing enough in its war against cyber crime. But the majority of messages the center receives, both electronically and over the phone, are reports of websites suspected of threatening the security of the country or violating the “peace and concord or good morals of the people”. Many complaints are frivolous.
“Ninety percent are prank calls,” said Nut Payongsri, a technician in CSOC’s war room. Payongsri admits with all the technology available to the cyber surveillance squad, the center relies heavily on information from the public. “We don’t have any impressive equipment to track suspicious Internet activity,” he says. “In most cases, we hear about misuse via calls to our hotline. We check each case and report them to the police.”
To Surachai Nilsang, the war room’s head cyber-inspector, policing the country’s cyber-space is not just a job. “The thing that drives us to do our duty is that we love and worship the monarchy,” he says.
Surachai does not hesitate to block a web page where a lese majeste violation is clear-cut. But some pages that come under review by the investigators are less obvious. For example the practice of using a very informal pronoun before the King’s name, a subtlety of the Thai language that may be lost in translation, requires a case by case review. Some royal insults are even more subtle. “They usually post metaphors,” Mr. Surachai says. “They have their own code words.”
Surachai uses a spider, a specialized computer program that crawls through the internet and flags potentially offensive content, to hunt down violations of the Computer Crimes Act. He says when he discovers a possibly offensive page he often seeks guidance from his superiors, consulting with a special military unit attached to the King’s palace to determine the legality of suspect internet postings. When a decision is made to block a site or internet provider, a court order is required, a request that judges have never turned down according to Surachai.
But duty to the King is also subject to duty to the sitting government. Not all lese majeste violations are treated equally. Early last December Prime Minister Yingluck’s Facebook team accidently posted a photograph of the King’s deceased brother, King Ananda, on a message congratulating King Bhumiphol, on his 84th birthday. Outrage against Yingluck’s Facebook team was massive with messages posted by Thais all over the internet condemning the team and furious at the photograph mistake as, in their minds, anybody should have known the photograph of King Ananda as a young boy was not that of King Bhumiphol. If that posting had been deemed deliberate by the CSOC, Yingluck’s entire Facebook team could have been arrested and charged with lese majeste. As could have the Prime Minister.
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