Amendment to cyber law is very dicey

Amendment to cyber law is very dicey

Living in Thailand can be like playing dice. Is there a chance you will be assaulted or shot at while caught in a traffic jam? Possibly. Will a taxi break the law and refuse to pick you up? It happens all the time. How about being trapped if an illegally modified building collapses or catches fire? Not beyond the imagination.

However, there is one area where people should not feel as if they are playing with dice. It's the law.

It is therefore most unfortunate that the newly endorsed amendment to the Computer Crime Act looks more speculative in some places than an attempt to inform citizens about what is and isn't legal when it comes to a computer or cyber system.

It's not that the amendment has no good points. Spamming now carries a stiffer fine of 200,000 baht. The law also makes it clearer that internet or content providers will not be held responsible for postings by other users unless they have a hand in uploading them.

The few benefits, however, seem to pale into comparison when compared to the bill's drawback which is a big blur regarding some of the most serious "crimes".

In my opinion, the bill is most controversial in two areas: Section 14 and Section 20. Both suffer from ambiguity regarding definitions of violations and a tendency to give ample room for state authorities to exercise their own judgement.

Section 14, which is supposed to guard against forgery or fraud, is needlessly amorphous. It says those who place on a computer system in a dishonest or fraudulent way information that is "distorted" or has been fabricated whether wholly or partly in a way that "may" cause damage to the public and that does not qualify as defamation under the criminal act are subject to five years in jail or a fine not exceeding 100,000 baht, or both.

The same punishment will be applicable to those who enter into a computer system false information which "may" cause damage to national security, public safety, economy security, public infrastructure or provoke public panic.

Words like "distortions", or "national security" are already broad and subject to interpretation. When coupled with the indistinct "may", the definitions become so vague they can be stretched to fit virtually anything state authorities do not like.

An example. The day before the draft amendment was sent to the National Legislative Assembly last week, the head of the army's cyber centre, Maj Gen Rittee Intravudh, insisted the draft was beneficial and warned people not to believe in "distorted information" allegedly being circulated by its opponents.

But are concerns that the new law will curb people's freedom of expression and privacy valid points to raise? I believe so. The authorities may believe the bill won't trample on free speech but if other people disagree, should opposition to it be considered "distortion''?

The law seems rooted in the assumption that a single truth can prevail in most cases and that is why deviations from it or "distortions" can be easily defined and prosecuted.

The world, driven by ever-evolving data, has become very complicated, too fluid for such a static assumption to cope with. Is a dam good or bad? Should we open our borders and extend more help to the Rohingya? Do we keep subsidising farmers or let them sink or swim under free market mechanisms? Should methamphetamine be legalised?

Real life is full of multiple truths. Some sets of data may not agree with our preconceptions. Others may conflict with what the government would rather have people believe. But should an argument against a dam in a reserved forest be classified as "distortion" or compromising national security, economic security or public infrastructure?

Under the new law, they may. But as far as common sense goes, they may also be honest opinions that deserve to be protected under the constitution.

The other controversy is in Section 20, which allows a nine-member panel to ask a court to block a website or delete its content even if it is legal but found to be against "public order or good morality".

Again, who guarantees this panel will cover the breadth and depth of "public order and good morality", which are not only immense but also constantly changing? Where is the line between screening computer data and censorship?

The government and the bill's supporters said people who do nothing wrong need not fear it. It's probably true, with all other things being perfect. In today's reality, however, when meth pills can be planted, should people not feel wary with a law that seems to want to tout risk rather than protect?

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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