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PROPOSED LAW SEEKS TO CURB ONLINE EXPRESSION

Doctoring a person's picture that damages his/her reputation can lead to three years in jail and a US$18,000 fine, while damaging a computer's information system "related to the country's national security" can land you 10 years in prison under a new cyber crime bill passed nearly unanimously last week, report the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and ARTICLE 19.

On 9 May, Thai legislators in the National Assembly voted 119 to 1 to pass the Computer Related Offences Bill, which gives the government "legal muscle" to act on Internet abuse and provides for lengthy prison terms for offenders. The bill now awaits royal assent.

Proponents say the proposed law is meant to address the increasing undermining of the monarchy, besides battling pornography and computer-related crimes such as hacking and data theft.

But SEAPA and ARTICLE 19 say it's just the latest way for the government to crack down on free expression online. ARTICLE 19 says the bill would "allow the authorities to take wide-ranging action to control even perfectly legitimate use of computers. This is likely to give rise to a profound chilling effect on the use of the Internet in Thailand."

According to the press freedom groups, the draft law gives the government sweeping powers to easily shut down or block websites, seize computers, and penalise people who use proxy servers to access banned sites. Moreover, some of the laws overlap with existing criminal offences, leading to even more excessive penalties.

SEAPA says the harsh punishments and unclear criteria on what is an "offence" will encourage self-censorship on the Internet. For example, the proposed law says that disseminating "improper" content is punishable with five years in prison and/or a fine of 100,000 Bhat (US$3,011), and can even be applied to the "messenger" - the Internet operator or webmaster.

Thai authorities have recently come under fire for censoring YouTube, due to content relating to the King. According to the "Bangkok Post", the Information and Communication Technology Minister is now planning to sue the popular video-sharing website.

Visit these links:
- SEAPA: http://www.seapabkk.org
- ARTICLE 19's analysis (including an English translation of the bill): http://www.article19.org/pdfs/analysis/thai-internet-mar-07.pdf
- "Bangkok Post" on YouTube: http://tinyurl.com/22uhtc
(15 May 2007)

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