NLA's cyber bill rush shows poor intent

NLA's cyber bill rush shows poor intent

The cybersecurity law possesses a lack of transparency that makes it possible to be enforced in the future on outspoken politicians.
The cybersecurity law possesses a lack of transparency that makes it possible to be enforced in the future on outspoken politicians.

The coup-installed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) last week approved the controversial cybersecurity bill, shrugging off public concerns over its threats to personal and corporate data privacy and human rights issues.

The contentious bill sailed through with 133 "yes" votes and 16 abstentions.

Believe it or not, the bill faced zero opposition.

Paritta Wangkiat is a columnist, Bangkok Post.

The drafting committee claimed the bill, which will take effect after it is published in the Royal Gazette, is a crucial step to building a digital infrastructure that could increase the capacity of the state in tackling internal and global cybersecurity threats that may stem from malicious attempts to damage and/or disrupt a computer network and its systems.

While the committee insisted the bill will not curb freedom of expression on the internet, its statement was disputed by iLaw, a human rights group which voiced concerns over the bill's broad interpretation of what is deemed as a "security threat".

According to the bill, there are three levels of cyber threats -- non-severe, severe and critical.

The bill, rather worryingly, defines critical threats as "threats that affect or may affect peace and order, and/or threaten the security of the state".

Critics are concerned with the vagueness with which critical threats are defined under the bill, saying the ambiguous definition opens up the chance for authorities to put down anything as a critical threat.

As such, they argue, it allows authorities to conduct surveillance, seize and copy personal computer information without a court order, to deal with a "threat" that may not necessarily be real.

The bill will see the creation of a National Cybersecurity Commission, chaired by the prime minister, and a supervisory committee that will be chaired by the Minister of Digital Economy and Society. While the commission will craft policies, under the bill, the committee will be allowed to demand real-time information from parties involved in its probe.

Am I being pessimistic? I don't think so.

Since it took power in 2014, the regime has cited the maintenance of "peace and order" to muzzle critics and silence its opponents.

A number of pro-democracy activists and scholars have been slapped with charges -- even jailed -- just for expressing their opinions on the powers that be.

Just last week, the leader of Future Forward Party Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit -- who is strongly critical of the military regime -- and several of his party executives were charged with computer crimes for alleging the junta was "siphoning" politicians from other parties to consolidate its standing during a Facebook live session last year?

Isn't this ridiculous?

As the political climate heats up, there is a valid reason to fear the bill will be abused to suppress freedom of expression and human rights.

After all, military leaders are still keen on holding on to power, even after the March 24 election.

The Cybersecurity Act is only one among many other controversial laws that were passed by the coup-appointed NLA.

Over the past four years, the assembly has passed over 400 bills.

Between January and February 2018 alone, the NLA passed 66 bills -- or approximately two bills per day -- while ignoring calls from the public to wait until an elected parliament complete with its checks-and-balances mechanism is formed.

Such a rush to pass laws were last seen under Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who toppled Thaksin Shinawatra from power in 2006.

It was reported that towards the end of Gen Sonthi's rule, the legislative body at that time reportedly passed 70 bills in the span of three days.

Many of these laws gave sweeping powers to the state. One of them is the Computer Crime Act, which the current regime is using to fight its political opponents, such as the FFP leader.

As such, we must be excused for wondering if the Cybersecurity Act will be used in the same dubious way.

Some NLA members have said that the rush to pass bills is "well intended" for the benefit of the country.

However, I find this hard to believe -- especially considering that the NLA, just like its equivalents in past coups, will not be held accountable for passing a bill with such an enormous impact.

By all standards, it's inappropriate for the coup-appointed NLA to rush into passing bills as laws, especially ones with contentious clauses -- like the Cybersecurity Act -- as the country heads toward a general election.

However, the NLA continues to shamefully take advantage of the absence of checks-and-balances.

Is this really a sign of good intent?

Paritta Wangkiat

Columnist

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.


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