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Cyber crime bill that limits Internet free expression approved by junta-appointed legislators, awaits royal assent for promulgation

(SEAPA/IFEX) - The junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly in Thailand has passed a cyber crime bill which gives the government legal muscle to act on Internet abuse and provides for harsh prison terms for offenders.

On 9 May 2007, legislators voted 119 to 1 for the bill at its third reading, which now awaits royal assent before it can be promulgated as the Computer-Related Offences Commission Act.

Proponents of the law have assured that it is meant to address the increasing undermining of the institution of the monarchy, besides battling pornography and computer-related crimes such as hacking and data theft.

The law empowers the Information and Communications Technology Ministry to shut down or block websites, but only through a court order, giving evidence and adequate reasons for the action.

SEAPA is troubled by the unclear criteria on what constitute "offences", the disproportionate punishments to violators and the implications of some of the provisions on free expression.

One of the law's provisions seeks to strengthen the government's intent to manage access to, and content on, the Internet by penalising people who seek ways around government-ordered blocks and filters. The law thus penalises the use of proxy servers to access sites banned by the government.

While campaigning for more responsible use of the Internet, Thai lawmakers are also taking aim at the anonymity the Internet affords many users. Free expression online may, however, suffer as a result, as measures of anonymity and privacy facilitate open and equal discussions, objectivity in the evaluation of the message rather than the messenger, and information-sharing pertaining to concerns over official wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, the harsh punishments and unclear criteria defining the offences will encourage self-censorship on the Internet. For example, the law says that disseminating "improper" content is punishable with a five-year imprisonment and a fine of Bht 100,000 (approx. US$3,066), or both, under article 13. The law also holds the Internet operator or webmaster liable, with a possible five-year imprisonment or a fine of Bht 100,000 (approx. US$3,066), or both, under article 14.

Doctoring pictures of individuals that cause damage to their reputation can land one in prison for three years or with a fine of Bht 600,000 (approx. US$18,363), or both, under article 15.

Under article 11, which concerns offences that affect national security, damaging the information system of a computer can lead to a 10-year imprisonment or a fine of Bht 200,000 (approx. US$6,123), or both. Undermining national security is punishable by between three and 15 years' imprisonment or a fine of between Bht 60,000 (approx. US$1,837) and Bht 300,000 (US$9,185), or both. For endangering a life or causing death, one could face between 10 and 20 years' imprisonment.

The law also seeks to apply to acts abroad that are deemed to "damage the country, both directly and indirectly".

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