Push for online ID law a mistake
News that the Thai government may be considering implementing an internet real name law for social media platforms, to monitor so-called fake news and online harms, is alarming. I know because my country, South Korea, tried the same thing a decade ago and I was part of the process that lead to it being struck down by the Constitutional Court as unconstitutional in 2012.
We may be tempted to think that bad actors online are "hiding behind anonymity", and that we should lift the curtain. But how would we feel if such reasoning was applied to other areas of our lives? When you go for a walk in public, you do not register your identity. When you get on a bus without name tags, you are not frowned upon for "hiding behind anonymity". Real harms can take place on the streets or in buses but we don't require people to be wearing name tags in such public spaces. The internet should be treated the same.
Anonymity is pervasive in our offline existence already and an integral part of our mental peace and sanity. It is part of the human right to privacy. The UN Human Rights Council has declared a number of times that rights protected offline should be protected online.
Of course, offline anonymity may be restricted in contexts where a risk of harms is inherent to certain activities. It is for Covid-19 prevention that we have accepted identity trackers when we enter business premises. We accept the requirement of showing our car licence plates because cars are dangerous both in harm causation and their ability to flee. But international norms are clear that restrictions on the right to privacy must be necessary and proportionate, and in pursuit of a legitimate aim.
What is the harm inherent in online activity which carries real harms like Covid-19 or driving cars? What percentage of online activity is illegal? The answer to these questions is part of the reason the Korean Constitutional Court, while striking down the internet real name law, criticised it for disproportionately "treating all citizens as potential criminals" just to catch a small number of bad actors.
Furthermore, in the court's view, the countervailing loss was overwhelming, not just to the users now chilled from using the internet under real name but to society at large.
Anonymous speech on the internet, rapidly spreading and reciprocal, allows people to overcome the economic or political hierarchy off-line and form public opinions free from class, social status, age, and gender distinctions.
That makes governance more reflective of the opinions of people from diverse classes and so further promotes democracy.
The chilling effect warned of by the Korean High Court will be much greater in present-day Thailand than 10 years ago when the Korean law was struck down. Back then in Korea, people were simply required to submit their ID numbers but in Thailand, many platforms have chosen to require a mobile number upon user registration, and all mobile numbers -- both prepaid and postpaid -- are registered with ID cards or passports as required by law. Increasing real-name registration for social media or other online activity decreased online activity itself by 95% on some platforms in Korea due to the chilling effect, which will be much more intense in today's Thailand.
Bad actors? They will still do what they connived to do, using someone else's ID cards. The Korean Court actually found empirical evidence that such real-name laws risk an increase of identity theft by bad actors.
When the Human Rights Council said, "what is protected online should be protected offline", the idea was that the internet should not be a privileged space where only those messages approved by the "moral" majority or some other gatekeepers are exchanged.
Offline, people discontent with the government may boil over. Offline, people discontent with their employers go out to strike. All without having to wear name tags or register their names. These activities should be equally allowed online. Yes, driving privileges will be given only to people registered because of the associated harm. Unless the regulators have inherent doubt on the goodness of people and their sharing of knowledge and thoughts, the internet should not be a privileged space like a gated community but open to all who want to take part in that sharing.
Thailand should learn from South Korea and immediately abandon plans to introduce real-name barriers to online freedoms.
Kyung Sin Park is director at Open Net, and professor at Korea University.