Cyber snooping bill creeps closer into law

Cyber snooping bill creeps closer into law

The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) is expected to pass Cyber Security Bill in its third reading tomorrow -- the final step that will enable the military government to police Thailand's digital sphere.

The move has caused ire and disappointment not only from civil society groups but also the business sector. The NLA passed the second reading early this month amid concerns over the limited number of public hearings.

Initially, civic groups had hoped the bill would rectify the flaws of the Computer Crime Act enacted during the previous junta government. They were let down. It has become a intimidating measure as it would allow for mass surveillance of online activities and platforms.

Civil society organisations are critical of the authorities' "daddy-knows-best" mentality which they would apply to control the internet world, where privacy and security of the system are of utmost importance.

Achara Ashayagachat is Senior News Reporter, Bangkok Post.

Now the military-installed NLA is poised to put in place another repressive mechanism, as it moves toward a general election in which an elected government will take over the administration.

Quite a few points are worrying.

Firstly, if the bill takes effect, a new panel, a cyber security committee, will be charged with detecting what are deemed as online threats to social morality, national security and stability, and the economy.

The definition of "threat" is too broad for this policing panel to flag undesirable content for blocking.

Though site blocking would eventually require court endorsement, those in charge could ask the operators dealing with some 8.8 million IP addresses in the country to take offending sites down first.

In addition, the bill doesn't resolve the problematic aspects of the Computer Crimes Act that make liable both the writers of "unlawful data" and the website operators. If someone sees the illicit statements -- even if they are only up for two hours -- it provides grounds for punishment.

It should be noted this policing committee also shares the same secretary with another panel called the "Personal Data Protection Committee".

That raises a big question -- how a committee which is supposed to protect people's rights and freedom has a member in common with a panel whose objective is just the opposite?

Restrictions on the press, internet and social media have been common since the military seized power on May 22, 2014.

The business sector, which normally doesn't want to bother with the government, has expressed its unease over the bill.

Meanwhile, internet service providers (ISP), online service providers (OSP), mobile operators, software developers, computer system representatives, social media owners, and others are wondering how complying with this bill will affect internet security and privacy, which could damage business confidence in Thailand.

Software operators say they accommodate state demands regarding site blocking when alerted about illegal websites. "But preventing everything using such a wide blanket [as proposed under the bill and the forthcoming organic bills] will do more harm than good," said one software operator.

Operators say they want laws that won't hinder technology development but could promote the interests of business and civil society alike.

They are also not convinced the policing committee could ensure the "flagged contents" would not be too vaguely interpreted under the broad terms of national security or social stability.

While the authorities are required to seek a court ruling to remove any content, it is hoped the judges would make a ruling on problematic content, not eliminate the whole URL, or it could affect a whole chain of digital transactions and interactions.

The economic potential value of the so-called digital economy could well be at stake. "Blocking the whole URL will infringe on the right to information of other content users," say business representatives.

They hope the authorities will not disclose what blocking technology will be used or how to censor particular content as that could threaten their business.

"The state should understand the nature of internet business proceedings; that operators normally have to be responsible for the security of the system anyway, so there's no need to put a tighter leash on them," sources said.

For the human right defenders and whistle blowers, the bill would enable the state to further curb freedom of expression.

Civil society groups, together with labour organisations, businesses and members of the European Parliament last week sent an open letter to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to express concern over the use of criminal defamation laws and the Computer Crimes Act to prosecute human rights defenders.

They say this violates Thailand's international obligations and increases the risk for businesses that import goods from Thailand. The letter was to mark International Human Rights Day on Dec 10. They are worried about migrant rights defender Andy Hall, and Prasong Lertrattanawisute, director of investigative media outlet Isra News Centre, as well as other outspoken scholars and members of the public who could fall victim to this cyber security bill.

The end of 2016 seems to portend the Big Brother society which George Orwell depicted in his novel 1984 -- we are confronted with the prospect that the state is watching over Thai netizens unable to fend for themselves.

With the NLA as a puppet shepherding this bill through, Big Brother will keep watching.

Achara Ashayagachat

Senior reporter on socio-political issues

Bangkok Post's senior reporter on socio-political issues.

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