The country learned last week the government is building a "great firewall of Thailand" to try to better control what citizens see on the internet. It is unfortunate that building this firewall is essentially a secret project. As designed, the project appears as if it will do much harm but little to achieve the security desired. The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ICT Ministry) and the Prime Minister's Office should solicit the public's help before implementing it. Otherwise, there is real risk it will turn into a cyberspace disaster.
The very existence of the firewall project was only revealed in the apparently careless release of a summary of the Sept 1 cabinet meeting. Even at that, the summary was put in an obscure part of a government website. It was not mentioned at all in official press releases, government briefings or even among the extensive documents at the prime minister's website, Thaigov.go.th. When the ICT minister finally addressed the subject last week, he was misleading.
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According to the new ICT Minister Uttama Savanayana, it is not a plan to build a firewall. He conceded a chief point of the project. That is, the government is gathering all resources to filter all internet traffic through a single gateway, leading into and out of Thailand. He claimed the only reason for the project is to lower the business costs of internet providers, a specious belief at best since many companies already operate and sell gateway services.
But according to the accidental cabinet summary dated Sept 4, the return to the 1990s system of a single internet gateway is all about security. The development order, signed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, says the "single gateway [is] to serve as a tool to control access to inappropriate sites, and the influx of information from abroad". There is no mention of lowering prices, helping consumers or giving aid to internet providers. "Relevant authorities will expedite the establishment of the single gateway," it says. The order contains less than 100 words.
There is, in fact, no advantage to this proposal for the public. The single benefit is to the government and security agencies. They will be able to secretly wiretap, filter, censor and monitor everything that is sent and received by every internet user. This is, indeed, why even the earliest reports of the project called it "the great firewall of Thailand", after the infamous one in China.
Against this unique and new government reward, however, are numerous disadvantages, obvious and hidden. First is the decision to return monopoly power to CAT Telecom, allowing it to operate all internet connections. This company was an unreliable internet facilitator as a state enterprise. There is no reason to believe it can now maintain the level of connectivity Thailand enjoys, let alone give the wider, faster service that will be needed for 4G data services.
The scheme effectively kills Dr Uttama's plans to make Thailand a hub of digital efficiency, since no serious company will trust its data to government-run and state-monitored communications. No one will appreciate the slower and less efficient connections that must result from the monitoring of internet traffic. Censorship and the laws necessary to enforce it will drive away serious information providers.
There are internet issues such as websites opposing the current institutions. But the "temporary" military regime is wading secretly into future freedoms and the ability to communicate, study and simply do business in the internet age. Having tried to slip this scheme past the public, it would be best now to shelve the issue for an elected government to consider.