Facebook pressured following arrests

Facebook pressured following arrests

The screenshot of the campaign for clear answers from Facebook at Change.org on Saturday.
The screenshot of the campaign for clear answers from Facebook at Change.org on Saturday.

Facebook has come under fire after police charged and arrested two people over the last two weeks using as evidence their private messages in the social network's chat rooms.

A campaign has been launched to demand clear answers from the US-based social network while a number of users declared they would quit Facebook and join other similar services, in particular minds.com.

The strong reaction came after the mother of a student activist was charged with lese majeste and computer crime on Friday.

According to her lawyer, she was charged with collaborating when another suspect now in custody sent her a message deemed lese majeste and she did nothing to reprimand or stop him.

An unverified copy of the charge leaked online showed that all she said during the conversation was ja, a Thai expression of acknowledgement and the equivalent of okay, yes or all right, when the other party asked her not to chide him for sending the message, which was unknown because the law prohibits repeating offensive content anywhere except in closed courtroom sessions.

But police said in a briefing on Saturday afternoon the reports were half-truths. According to their evidence, Ms Patnaree contributed more to the conversation than just the word but they could not disclose details at this stage. 

Private chats are protected under Facebook's privacy policy. Police did not say how they got the content but insisted it was obtained through legitimate means. The two suspects insisted they did not give police passwords to their accounts.

It is known that both the Royal Thai Police (in 2013) and the Royal Thai Army (in 2014) purchased remote control systems for a total of 646,000 euros from an Italian company known as Hacking Team, which offers surveillance software to governments. The systems give authorities the potential to take control of the devices of people they want to track.

Hacking Team has said that its systems are designed to fight crime and terrorism. Its customer policy is to stop providing software to governments it believes have used its technologies to violate privacy or human rights. However, some governments have been found to have used HT software for purposes the company supposedly disclaims.

To solve the latest mystery, the Thai Netizen Network launched a campaign at Change.org asking Facebook to provide clear answers about whether it had given the government access to people's private messages.

The network, a non-profit organisation under the Foundation for Internet and Civic Culture, began the campaign on Friday night. As of noon on Saturday, 1,136 had signed up.

"In its Government Requests Report, Facebook in 2014 blocked content on 35 pages as requested by the Thai government, 30 of which happened in the latter half. Such disclosure and transparency gave us an insight into government attempts to restrict access to information," it said in the campaign.

The same report also revealed the social network had a good record in considering government requests. From 2013-15, the Thai government asked for the data of 16 users but Facebook gave it none.

In any case, the information was until December 2015, it noted.

"We are aware Facebook will publish the 2016 first-half report in a few months. However, the situation in Thailand right now is full of fear and doubts and there is a serious lack of confidence following the arrests of Facebook users and the blocking of a page in the past week," it said,

"Thai users need to have clear and current information now so they can make informed decisions whether Facebook is still safe to use for them."

The campaign sought to ask Facebook's management the following questions:

  • Since the beginning of this year, has Facebook cooperated with the Thai government — whether in giving user information or blocking content?
  • In January 2016, the media reform panel of the National Reform Steering Assembly claimed it would meet Facebook executives to seek cooperation in removing content without court orders. Since the May 22, 2104 coup, has Facebook met with any government committees or agencies and discussed such cooperation?
  • Last month, eight administrators of a Facebook and a political activist were arrested. Two of them said authorities had access to their inboxes for private messages without having to ask them for their passwords. Thai police told BBC Thai later they had such access and the information was obtained through legitimate means. Did Facebook give Thai authorities the information or had any Facebook employees access to a user's inbox?
  • This month, a Facebook page became inaccessible in Thailand and the system informed users that this was due to "local law restrictions". When Facebook cites local laws, what exactly does it refer to — actual laws involving freedom of expression such as Section 112 or 116 of the Criminal Code, or the equivalent of laws during special circumstances such as the orders of the coupmakers' chief under Section 44 of the 2014 interim charter?

Apart from these questions, the campaign suggested to Facebook the following:

  • When some content or a page is blocked due to "local law restrictions", Facebook should inform users what these laws are. Such information should be readily available in government requests.
  • Reports on blocked content should be categorised for clarity. At the very least, Facebook should make a distinction between forbidden content involving defamation or peace and order and fraud pages seeking to obtain personal information or spread malware. After all, some of the government requests might be reasonable.

Facebook told BBC Thai this week that users' information was intact but declined to be specific about the two cases.

It insisted it had never given the Thai government access to users' information but was vague when asked about the timeframe.


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