Regime cyber walls risk freezing Thailand's progress

Regime cyber walls risk freezing Thailand's progress

The single internet gateway fiasco has unmasked what the military regime envisages as the kind of society Thailand should be. A single path towards "happiness", a single roadmap to Thai-style democracy, a single mindset for "Thainess", governed by a single internet gateway to ensure only the "right" information is consumed by society.

Is this really what the junta wants to be remembered for? A digital "peeping Tom" looking through the keyhole, and listening in on our most intimate and private conversations. As regards to censorship, what would be the "right" kind of information and what would be the "wrong" kind outlawed by our internet censorship police? Furthermore, who would be deemed worthy and wise enough to decide what kind of information is appropriate for a society like Thailand?

Suppose I asked you to choose one person to have sole authority to censor everything you saw on TV, read in books and viewed online, for all of your life. Who would you allow to have that much control over you? And who would you trust so completely to decide everyday what kind of information was appropriate at each particular juncture?

Some of my friends say their wives already wield that kind of authority! But you know what my answer would be? Nobody. I wouldn't allow anybody, not even my parents, to have that much control. Nor would I seek to wield such power over anybody else. The only person good enough, responsible enough, and trustworthy enough, to act as my information police officer, is me.

I recognise that as a society, even mature liberal democracies place certain limits on freedom of information and freedom of speech, and for good reason. For example, the possession, distribution and production of child pornography falls outside of the US constitution's first amendment rights pertaining to freedom of speech, and so it should.

But in New Zealand, perpetrators caught in the mere act of browsing or the attempt to gain access to child pornography are subject to a federal prison sentence of up to five years. In Great Britain, under the Protection of Children Act, child pornographic material also includes digital images or "pseudo photographs", which just about covers all the bases.

Censorship doesn't end there. In 1995 US Senator Dianne Feinstein of the Democratic Party helped push through a bill, making it illegal to publish or distribute bomb-making information, a crime punishable by 20 years in a federal facility. Moreover, Senator Feinstein, in her present capacity as Vice Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, is also calling for the total banishment from the internet of countercultural publications like The Anarchist Cookbook.

Therefore, I will be the first to admit that censorship can be appropriate, if not absolutely necessary at times. But what is the litmus test we should employ in order to determine these very delicate matters? Well, in my view, the test is a simple but an extremely contentious one. The question we need to ask is, "Is it in the best interests of the public?"

If the junta had proposed a form of internet cleansing on things we can all agree are totally unacceptable like child pornographic material, DIY bomb-making advice, or violence-inciting websites, I would be the first to applaud Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha for his courage and vision. But this is just not the case.

What the premier and the Ministry of ICT are trying to achieve with the single internet gateway is not about the public interest, but rather their own. The ICT Ministry wants to make it easier for the junta to monitor internet traffic, but it's not about catching paedophiles, drug traffickers and terrorists; it's about threats to their own security, which entails cracking down on dissenting opinions.

Slowly but surely, an "Iron Curtain" is descending on this once free and democratic society. It was far from perfect under Thaksin or Yingluck Shinawatra, and I don't think returning to that is a solution either. However, we are a nation drifting further away from the fire of liberty, blind to the light of reason, and consumed by a dark medieval mindset, which doesn't help create an informed citizenry, a just society or even a country that can thrive and compete with the rest of the modern world.

Thailand needs to build bridges, not walls. But instead, this government is obsessed with putting up walls that stifle the free expression of ideas, it has built walls that detrimentally infringe on our civil liberties, and it is plotting to erect a single internet gateway many have dubbed the "Great Firewall of Thailand".

So to the junta, I would like to invoke Ronald Reagan's immortal words spoken in his powerful speech on June 12, 1987 in Berlin at The Brandenburg Gate.

"General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalisation, come here to this gate. Mr Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Songkran Grachangnetara is an entrepreneur. He graduated from The London School of Economics and Columbia University. He can be reached at Twitter: @SongkranTalk

Songkran Grachangnetara


Songkran Grachangnetara is an entrepreneur. He graduated from The London School of Economics and Columbia University.

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