What bugs the government?

Freedom of speech always has been a somewhat hazy concept, but it would appear a new threshold has been reached. The head of the technology police claims he is watching social media and has the ability to know what everyone does, every moment they are online.

In return for sticking to agreed subjects for Facebook posts and Line messaging, for example, the police will not cause any bother. The government's spokesman defends this policy.

The policeman is Pol Maj Gen Pisit Pao-in, head of the Technology Crime Suppression Division. He caused quite a stir when he laid down some strict new rules for online behaviour. Discussion of whether there will be a coup, for example, is off-limits. Clicking "like" on such a discussion is punishable by five years in prison. The chief internet censor, Information and Communications Technology Minister Anudith Nakornthap, seconded the threat, twice.

One might be willing to laugh off or ignore such talk as officials getting carried away with their positions _ except for one thing. Deputy government spokeswoman Sunisa Lertpakawat said there are criminals on the internet.

"I ask society to understand the reason behind this move by officials," she said.

In short, the bugging of social media, the tapping of conversations and the threats to imprison internet users for their online conversations all are part of government policy. Ms Sunisa's tagline that "we're duty bound to safeguard people's freedom" rings hollow.

There should be serious questions about whether the policy is legal. Even the flawed, military-sponsored constitution of 2007 provides for freedom of speech by all citizens. The claim that there are criminals on the internet is as hollow as it is silly; there are criminals everywhere in our society.

Pol Maj Gen Pisit claimed the Computer Crimes Act provides both the legal right to snoop and the ability to intimidate, arrest and imprison. He demonstrated his use of that power by detaining Sermsuk Kasitipradit, the political editor of TV station Thai PBS, for writing a Facebook post that clearly stated he did not believe rumours of a coup. By the policeman's logic, the editor of every newspaper in Thailand should be arrested for reporting there are coup rumours.

But the authorities have a different agenda from harassing the media. Their goal is to try to shape the actions and thinking of ordinary citizens. So long as internet users stick to non-controversial subjects, said Pol Maj Gen Pisit, they do not have to fear being locked up.

Free speech threats and arrests are dangerous to democracy and freedom. That is because they lead inevitably _ without exception _ to protecting those in power. Last week, the Department of Special Investigation was called in over allegations that a doctored photo of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra had appeared on the website of the Democrat Party's deputy spokeswoman Malika Boonmeetrakul. The message is clear. If a senior, prominent politician is involved in a criminal investigation over her right to free speech, what chances do ordinary citizens have?

Online speech is no different from any other form. The country needs no special rules or enforcement of speech on the internet. Wiretapping is against the law in Thailand except in exceptional, court-supervised cases.

It would be encouraging if the prime minister and the opposition leader made it clear they will oppose extra-legal attempts by the police to monitor or punish citizens involved in stating their opinions about any subject.