Cyber law raises eyebrows
- 15 Mar 2019 at 07:21
- WRITER: BLOOMBERG
A cybersecurity bill could be used to stifle dissent. (Photo by Thanarak Khunton)
A cybersecurity bill introduced just weeks ahead of Thailand's first democratic election since a 2014 military coup has stoked concerns it could be used as a weapon to stifle political dissent.
Critics say the broad and vague language in the Cyber Security Act -- passed by the National Legislative Assembly on Feb 28 -- may give the military government powers to seize data and electronic equipment without proper legal oversight. The law will come into effect once it is published in the Royal Gazette, the timing of which is unclear.
"This law's aim is simple: to put the internet in a cage," said Katherine Gerson, a Thailand researcher at Amnesty International. "Authorities have already penalised scores of journalists, politicians, activists, academics and students under vaguely worded legislation. This new law would entrench the stifling political climate cultivated by the military government."
The new law risks further eroding free speech in a nation that's already imprisoned hundreds of people over the past decade for political statements or insults to the royal family. Technology companies including Apple and Facebook have warned via an industry lobby group that it would empower authorities to spy on most internet traffic.
Thailand isn't alone in tightening oversight of the internet and social media. Last year, the government of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak introduced a fake news law that was used to probe his chief opponent Mahathir Mohamad. After Mr Mahathir was elected in May he attempted to repeal the bill, but was thwarted by the opposition-led Senate. India, which holds national elections next month, is also attempting to stem the spread of misinformation on Facebook's WhatsApp.
"We place a high importance on cybersecurity and cyberthreats. These measures are only to be used when there's an actual threat to national stability," Lt Gen Weerachon Sukhonthapatipak, a government spokesman, said in a phone interview. "If you're just a regular business operating here with transparency and good conduct, this law wouldn't affect you."
Social media is expected to play a heavy role ahead of Thailand's March 24 general election, injecting a new dynamic into a country with a volatile history at the ballot box, including military putsches. More than 75% of Thailand's 69 million people are internet users and it ranks third globally for most time per day spent surfing the web, according to We Are Social and Hootsuite data. Thailand is the seventh largest market for Facebook users worldwide, with 84% of the total population on the platform.
In the event of a cyberthreat to national security, the new bill allows a watchdog committee headed by the prime minister to seize computers, servers and data without a court order, according to the latest version of the law posted on the Senate's website.
The government's statement has not reassured technology company lobbyists, who have spoken out against the new law. The Asia Internet Coalition, an industry organisation that represents companies such as Alphabet, Amazon.com, Apple, Facebook and Twitter, said the day the law was passed it would give the military regime "sweeping powers to monitor traffic online" under a "loosely-defined national security agenda".
It will also enhance the military government's powers under the existing Computer Crimes Act. In the five years since it came to power the junta has filed over 60 charges, on issues ranging from the publication of a whistle-blowing report on human rights in Thailand to the posting of content on Facebook.
Many cases go undocumented however, and the number is thought to be much higher, said Yingcheep Atchanong, a programme manager at iLaw, a Bangkok-based organisation that works on freedom of expression and civil and political rights.
"If the law is used strictly for cyber-attacks then it's acceptable," said Mr Yingcheep. "However, the government typically uses the excuse of national political stability to attack those with differing opinions."
That's the concern for military critics such as Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a tycoon-turned-prime ministerial candidate for the anti-junta Future Forward Party.
Mr Thanathorn faces charges of spreading false information under the Computer Crimes Act, brought by a member of the military government. His party last week was hit with another charge of spreading fake news online, punishable under the same law, a charge they plan to contest.
"This Act has been used as a political tool to prosecute people when they speak out," he said.