Reform body votes for tight social media censorship

Reform body votes for tight social media censorship

ANALYSIS: Measures for smartphone use and online conduct bring the junta into line with Chinese internet control

Proposals passed by the NRSA call for mandatory fingerprinting and face-scans for every owner of a mobile phone. (Pinterest.com/facial-recognition)
Proposals passed by the NRSA call for mandatory fingerprinting and face-scans for every owner of a mobile phone. (Pinterest.com/facial-recognition)

The junta's chief reform body has voted almost unanimously for a complicated set of stringent restrictions including mandatory fingerprint and face scanning even to buy time to use a mobile phone.

The National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA) passed the 84-page set of proposed new rules for online conduct on Monday by a vote of 144-to-1.

If adopted by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and its appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA), smartphone and internet users are in for some major changes.

The NRSA measures impose stringent restrictions on internet usage, intended in part to identify the posters of all content on services such as Facebook and YouTube.

The package of wide-ranging measures would place Thai censorship and online restrictions even closer to those of nations such as China and Iran, which try to tightly control citizens' access to information.

The proposal passed Monday suggests initial steps including requiring that all cellphone numbers be registered with not only users' 13-digit citizen identification numbers - as is already the case - or (for foreigners) passport details, but also their biometric fingerprints and facial recognition data.

Other measures to be taken later include the establishment of a central social media watch centre to look for content considered inappropriate by the government.

The reforms also mandate an upgrade to technology used for intercepting internet communications. The government already has several offices engaged in monitoring online activity and also encourages members of the public to report material considered offensive.

The major target of the authorities is lese majeste offences, but since seizing power in 2014, the ruling junta has in practice also criminalised political dissent and criticism of its actions. Charges under the Computer Crime Act and other, specific coup-related measures, have resulted in long prison sentences in cases that do not involved lese majeste.

The new proposals are part of the government's 20-year "National Strategy" plan to retain influence after elections are held. The regime has suggested that polls may be held next year, but has never set an election date.

The expanded censorship proposals follow earlier NRSA plans to set up an appointed council to regulate print and online media. It would require journalists to be licensed or risk prison.

Media organisations urged its rejection, saying its definition of who needs a licence is too broad and it restricts freedom of expression.

The junta's planning emulates efforts at social discipline in China, although with important differences.

In China, authorities have also pressed enforcement of real-name registration for internet and cellphone users over the past several years with varying degrees of success. Operators of Chinese social networking platforms have acknowledged that requirements for real-name registration have not always been fully implemented because they can be onerous and were likely to hurt their ability to draw more users.

But China at least has its own social media networks, and bans Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other such networks popular in Thailand.

In major Chinese cities, though, as in Thailand it has become harder to obtain cellphone numbers without registering one's ID, and with the proliferation of smartphones in China, many social media accounts are now linked to mobile phone numbers.

Such requirements are arguably more easily imposed on Chinese internet companies, which have long complied with requests that they carry out censorship on the internet in return for the right to compete in a large and lucrative market.

Chinese social media platforms employ thousands of people to scrub posts off their sites if they are been deemed to violate censorship demands.

In Thailand, the regime has depended on self-censorship by internet providers.

The number of Thais employed finding and listing websites, pages and post for censorship is not known, but such operations are known to be operated by the government, at least two police divisions, the army and navy and the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC).


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