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Govt cracks down on social networking forums

Facebook users urged to safeguard their privacy, after one Thai member is arrested on lese majeste charges

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A member of the social networking website Facebook has spent the past two months in jail, accused of breaking lese majeste law in messages posted at his Facebook page. 

Wipas Raksakulthai, a 37-year-old businessman based in Rayong, is being detained at the Bangkok Remand Prison. The court denied him bail.

"Even though many of his close friends disagreed with his political position, we'd never go to the police over what he allegedly wrote," says one of Mr Wipas's friends.

"Anyone could have contacted police, because he kept his posts viewable to the public," the friend says.

Mr Wipas is a supporter of the red shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and had left political comments on Facebook.

Since his arrest, Facebook users have criticised him, sharing his personal information and contacts they acquired from his profile pages.

They encourage each other to report the findings to the police.

This is thought to be the first lese majeste case against a Thai Facebook user stemming from his own disclosure of personal information and views on his Facebook page.

Like other social network websites, Facebook allows members to create a personal profile and form friends and acquaintances.

A recent survey of 1,494 internet users in Bangkok conducted by Dhurakij Pundit University reveals that Facebook is the most popular social network site for people airing their political views.

Since Mr Wipas's arrest, questions are being asked as to whether it is safe and private enough for members to air their political views and if the government has gone too far in its crackdown on internet users in this group.

About 4 million Thais use Facebook. The global figure is 400 million.

Supinya Klangnarong, a media reform activist, says the Wipas case reflects an expansion of the government's crackdown on online political dissidents, from content-based public websites into social networks.

"The case further escalates the climate of fear among internet users," she says.

"Now many people refrain from revealing their real identities on Facebook."

The government regards breaches of the lese majeste law as a threat to national security, making it risky for dissidents to express their views, she says.

Since the emergency decree was imposed on April 7, the government has managed to close at least 1,150 websites.

"We're worried that more online users may be arrested for exercising political expression," she says.

Internet users are already vulnerable to scrutiny under the Computer Crimes Act, which allows the authorities to track down their identities based on their internet protocol (IP) address. The act stipulates harsh punishment for violators who store, publish or forward information deemed a threat to national security.

But the imposition of the emergency decree has given the state more power to control dissidents, and also to hunt them down.

These include a new online crime agency that will go after violators of the lese majeste law and a so-called online scout network that encourages users to monitor violators of this and other laws, says the activist.

Even when users opt to use fake identities, the police may be able to find ways to get them by other means, she says.

However, Facebook's own privacy policy also poses concerns among its users.

The policy has been criticised for its lengthy statements, leaving users confused about what information is available to whom.

Kullatip Satararuji, a mass communications lecturer at Dhurakij Pundit University, says Facebook users should turn on their privacy settings to avoid unwanted exposure.

"We need to group our contact lists to decide which people we allow to see what, and consider the impact of such exposure," she says.

"Social media is being used as a political tool by people who want to express their views. So you have to be aware that your personal information could go public," she says.

Nutthapong Chaiwanitphon, a Facebook member, is openly critical of the government.

"I have been defriended by some friends due to my political expression, but that's okay," says the 31-year-old freelancer.

But he worries about what his business partners will think, so he excludes them from his friend lists."I can live without Facebook if I have to," he says. "Ultimately, it's just a tool to contact friends."


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