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Thailand's Cyber Crime Act tightens internet control

Sweeping powers to censor, stifle free speech, silence critics

On 17 November 2016, a blocked website shows a notice from Thailand's Ministry of Digital Economy and Society with the message,
On 17 November 2016, a blocked website shows a notice from Thailand's Ministry of Digital Economy and Society with the message, "This website contains content and information that is deemed inappropriate"

AP Photo

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 21 December 2016.

Thailand's new Computer-Related Crime Act (CCA) gives overly broad powers to the government to restrict free speech, enforce surveillance and censorship, and retaliate against activists, Human Rights Watch said today. Despite concerns expressed by civil society, business, and diplomatic representatives, the controversial law was unanimously adopted on December 16, 2016, by the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly.

"The adoption of the Computer-Related Crime Act drastically tightens the chokehold on online expression in Thailand," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Hundreds of activists have been prosecuted since the May 2014 coup for exercising their freedom of expression online, and these latest amendments will make it even easier for the junta to punish its critics."

Before the law was passed, more than 300,000 people signed a petition demanding that the National Legislative Assembly reject the controversial amendments, which they saw as an infringement of privacy and freedom of expression on the Internet.

Thailand has an obligation to protect human rights, but it is moving in the opposite direction, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly raised concerns that Thai authorities, private companies, and individuals often retaliate against those reporting alleged human rights violations by filing defamation lawsuits, accusing activists and victims of making false statements.

Since the May 2014 coup, the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta has arrested and filed computer crime charges under the old 2007 CCA against numerous critics who posted commentary on Facebook and other social media platforms, alleging corruption by junta leaders. Articles 14(1) and (2) of the new law provide grounds for the government to prosecute anything they designate as "false" and, in the case of article 14(1), "distorted" information, terms which are likely to be open to abuse as past prosecutions have shown.

The new CCA is also likely to increase censorship due to its ambiguity, Human Rights Watch said, because of the broad grounds for offenses "likely to cause damage to the public" under article 14, including "false or partially false" data, "distorted or partially distorted" data, or data likely to "cause public panic" or harm "maintenance of national security, public safety, national economic security, public infrastructure serving the public interest." Service providers such as social media platforms and access providers will also be required to delete or otherwise prevent the availability of such content following government notification, or they will also be subject to punishment for that content.

Furthermore, new provisions under articles 16/1 and 16/2 state that the court can order information that is found to be false and having caused damage to other persons or the public to be removed from the Internet and deleted from computer systems. If these articles are enforced arbitrarily, such actions will have dire consequences on research and reporting on contentious topics of public concern, including incidents related to serious state-sponsored rights violations, such as the 2003 "drugs war," the 2010 violent political confrontations, and abusive counterinsurgency operations in the southern border provinces.

Under newly amended article 20(3) of the CCA, even content online that is not illegal can be banned and ordered to be deleted by the court based on a request from a computer data screening committee, appointed by the Minister of Digital Economy and Society, stating the the content is considered to be against public order or good morals of the people. The precedent of interpretation by authorities that are neither judicial nor independent from the executive has troubling implications for human rights reporting. After the May 2014 coup, the government blocked the Human Rights Watch Thailand webpage for containing information that was considered by authorities to be "inappropriate."

The government's interest in using the new law to suppress criticism was indicated on December 15, 2016, when Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha gave a media interview stressing the need for authorities to have a tool to act against online content considered to be critical and offensive to the monarchy. Criticizing the monarchy is a serious criminal offense in Thailand. In most cases, convictions of those charged with lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) result in harsh sentences. Since the May 2014 coup, Thai authorities have charged at least 68 people with lese majeste, mostly for posting or sharing comments online.

Privacy of online communication is also seriously under threat under the new CCA amendments, Human Rights Watch said. The amendments expand data collection and other investigatory powers under the act by granting their use in any criminal offense under other laws that involve the use of computer systems, computer data, or devices for carrying out the offense. Service providers may be required to retain user data for up to two years in unspecified special cases, an increase from the previous requirement of up to one year. The new articles 18(2) and (3) continue to allow authorities to access "traffic data" and other user-related data without a court order to assist their investigation of an offense under the CCA or other laws. Article 18(7) also allows authorities with a court order to potentially compel service providers to assist with decrypting encoded data, raising concerns that the law could undermine the use of encryption tools that protect cybersecurity and the privacy of users.

The government has shown an increasingly aggressive attitude toward critics of the CCA. The spokesman of the Prime Minister's Office, Lt. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, told media on December 18 that people who participated in any form of protest against the CCA could be prosecuted for causing public disturbances. Two days earlier, the Army Cyber Center warned that posting or sharing online commentary that criticizes the CCA could be considered false information and result in prosecution.

"Under this draconian law, Internet users will have to look over their shoulders when going online," Adams said. "The Thai military government has now given itself sweeping power to monitor, search, and acquire information, invading people's privacy on a massive scale."

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