Crackdown out of control

Crackdown out of control

Pol Lt Gen Thitirat Nongharnpitak, commander of the Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB) says police are installing software to allow surveillance of individual citizens online. (Post Today photo)
Pol Lt Gen Thitirat Nongharnpitak, commander of the Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB) says police are installing software to allow surveillance of individual citizens online. (Post Today photo)

As was virtually assured from the start, authorities now have gone unacceptably overboard in their censorship. Last week, the chief of the police Central Investigation Bureau said his force will begin action against internet users who even view a forbidden web page or social media post. Pol Lt Gen Thitirat Nongharnpitak seems to want to warn Thai people against the spread of lese majeste material. Still, he should withdraw this threat, as it is the wrong way to proceed.

Pol Lt Gen Thitirat's threat is also rather questionable. He told this newspaper that the CIB aims to "track down producers of illegal content". Even getting involved in online offences seems like overkill. He will thus join lese majeste "detectives" who already include the army, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defence, the National Intelligence Agency, the CIB's parent Royal Thai Police Bureau, the CIB's "brother" technology police, the Thai Internet Service Provider Association (Tispa) and others.

This provides some focus to his threats to monitor 50 million or more Thais -- the number of computer and smartphone owners who use the internet. The CIB has long been tasked with identifying creators of lese majeste material, going far back to the days when this was almost always foreign-published books. But according to Pol Lt Gen Thitirat, he and his CIB police will now identify internet users who merely view illicit material online. By this, he made clear, he means only web pages and social media posts with illegal content of the monarchy.

This puts the CIB and the police in uncharted waters, and raises two vital questions. The first is how this can be accomplished. Police and the military government have denied they have purchased and installed any surveillance software. While few believed the previous denials in view of reports from foreign software vendors, Pol Lt Gen Thitirat appears to be confirming that such software is in place and under control of the CIB. Similarly, few believe the denials that the government is working towards opening a single internet gateway to make such spying on all citizens much easier.

For the millions of Thais who use the internet, there is a more pertinent question. Pol Lt Gen Thitirat said specifically his anti-lese majeste investigators plan to target internet users who only see a web page or post that is illegal. The obvious question is how any person would know that he is accessing forbidden material before he sees it. The list of banned websites and Facebook posts is top secret and unavailable outside a tiny circle.

Both the government and the NBTC have bragged that they have removed access to 6,000 web pages and had Facebook block dozens or hundreds of posts. It is true that hundreds of new web pages have sprung up by mostly "clickbait" sites and the like to mirror the already banned sites. The thousands of government, military and police employees trying to monitor and block such sites are hopelessly behind. And since this banned, anti-monarchy material is now available on sites even the government doesn't know about, why should citizens be held responsible if they only click and look at such content?

The always questionable campaign to clean the internet of nasty material now is out of control. Pol Lt Gen Thitirat and colleagues are simultaneously trying to intimidate all internet users while demanding they also perform the impossible task of pre-censoring themselves. The righteous campaign to enforce the law has got out of hand and the regime must rethink its tactics.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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