Net users, you are being watched
Over the past two years, Thailand has not just suffered repeated Covid-19 waves, but it has also faced growing discontent and criticism. Widespread protests have taken place calling for major reform of the political establishment.
Many aspects of these protests have been innovative, not only because they challenged usually taboo subjects such as monarchy reform and the army in politics. The protests took place both on the streets as well as the internet.
The internet has become an increasingly important space in Thailand's pro-democracy movement, with digital-savvy netizens using the web to spread their messages and make their voices heard in the form of videos, memes, popular hashtags, and social media posts.
The authorities' attempts to quash the protest movement and the control measures -- with political cyberspace campaigns, are repressive laws to restrict internet use and have their online access and activities limited and monitored by state surveillance.
In its 2021 Freedom on the Net report, which analyses internet freedoms globally, Washington DC-based Freedom House, a non-profit group on democracy rated Thailand "not free", giving it a grade of just 36 out of 100. "The internet is severely restricted in Thailand," the report said.
Among the weapons in the government's arsenal to control the internet are the Cybersecurity Act 2019, which allows the government to monitor and access digital data it deems "cyber threats" to the country, and the Computer Crime Act (CCA)2017.
The CCA, first introduced in 2007 and amended in 2017, is draconian in nature. It grants broad powers to the government to conduct surveillance, censor free speech and opinion, and target activists and political opponents. It allows the government to prosecute those it deems to be spreading "false" or "distorted information".
The act has repeatedly been used to arrest activists in order to restrict freedom of expression. At the height of the pro-democracy protests in 2020, authorities targeted protesters and warned them against using online platforms to mobilise people to join the demonstrations. According to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), between July 2020 and September 2021, 90 people in 103 cases were charged under the CCA.
The government did not stop there. In August, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society introduced a new ministerial notification to update rules on retaining computer traffic data of service providers, pursuant to the CCA. This new notification adds requirements for a range of digital service providers, including internet providers, social media platforms, and messaging applications, to collect data to identify individuals and hand it over to authorities upon request. This data is admissible in court. Even public venues providing internet access are required to install surveillance cameras to aid authorities in identifying internet users.
Ultimately, these new rules are here to assist authorities in tracking down individuals whose online activities they deem to have violated the CCA. Given how the authorities have used the broadly worded CCA against those calling for change in Thailand, there are legitimate concerns the new ministerial notification was made not to fight cybercrime, but instead to grant authorities added arbitrary powers to crack down on free speech in the digital sphere.
The new ministerial notification took into account the increased popularity of social media and messaging platforms such as Facebook, Line, Telegram, YouTube, and Instagram, among others, and has now added them as the subject of increased state surveillance, outside of any accountability for the government. Since these surveillance activities are justified by the authorities in the interests of "national security", users are not able to invoke their right to privacy under the Personal Data Protection Act 2021.
Despite the government's efforts to control cyberspace, Thai youths and various pro-democracy groups are still displaying extreme courage, continuing their street protests and using social media to express opinions, raise awareness, and mobilise their campaigns. Yet, for them and all people in Thailand, keeping themselves safe from the government's prying eyes is becoming increasingly challenging.
Internet service providers and parliamentarians should be at the forefront of fighting back against digital dictatorship, and urging the government to repeal laws and regulations that curtail internet freedom.
Mu Sochua is a board member of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and a former Cambodian member of parliament.