We and many other Internet freedom advocates have been closely watching the prosecution of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the director of a popular alternative Thai news portal. Chiranuch, also known by her online handle Jiew, is being charged for defamation of the Thai royal family, or lèse majesté, under a particularly disquieting set of conditions.
The disturbing part about this case is that Jiew is being prosecuted not because of anything she said, but instead for being the director and webmaster of a news site where pseudonymous visitors submitted comments and posts that the Thai government considered to be inappropriate. Internet freedom advocates have documented how unclear and subjectively interpreted laws, such as those that punish lèse majesté, have been used in recent years to censor political commentary and chill freedom of expression, but what is particularly worrisome in this case is that a mere intermediary could be held liable for lèse majesté thanks to Thailand's Computer-Related Crime Act.
Followers of Internet freedom issues are probably becoming very familiar with the recurring concept of the "Internet intermediary," a way to refer to any of the the many different kinds of entities that receive, host, and transmit communications on the Internet. Free expression on the Internet relies upon Internet intermediaries having clear limitations on liability for hosting and transmitting content. Without clear, fair rules, fear of liability will force Internet intermediaries into adopting objectionable, inefficient policies, like monitoring content passing through their networks, and restricting what users can post on their platforms. Across the world, we're witnessing increasing efforts by governments and corporations to put pressure on Internet intermediaries to act as network police — pushing ISPs and websites to throttle, filter, block, monitor, and censor.
With that in mind, it's clear why the case raises serious concerns about Internet freedom in Thailand. First, Jiew is facing decades in prison simply for being a journalist and a webmaster, a distressing outcome that has Amnesty International condemning her arrest and trial. More broadly, if Jiew were convicted it could set a de facto precedent that will chill online innovation and free expression in Thailand. The threat of prosecution under Thailand's recently enacted Computer-Related Crime Act of 2007 could be used to intimidate companies and organizations that enable online speech to function, resulting in self-censorship by ISPs and websites fearful of running afoul of government censors. In his coverage of the trial, anti-censorship activist CJ Hinke sharply characterizes the climate of fear being generated by the case: "[The] Government draws its line in the sand but never tells netizens where it is so we never know when we are crossing into criminality."
The architecture of the Internet supports free expression for all, but we are seeing today how deeply governments want to limit that freedom, whether it's by pulling a killswitch or prosecuting an Internet pioneer. Advocates of Internet freedom worldwide must remember that these critical frailties can be overcome by a collective global effort to educate users about communicating securely, improve the technology that empowers and protects individuals, and create better laws, so that the benefits afforded by technology can survive the impact of draconian efforts to control it and its users.
For more about Jiew's plight and censorship in Thailand, follow Freedom Against Censorship Thailand's coverage of the start of her trial (Days 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5). (Due to court scheduling conflicts, the next part of her trial will resume in September.) You can also learn more about Jiew and her work from an EFF interview with her from October 2010.