Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly voted unanimously last week to pass an amendment to that country’s Computer Crime Act (CCA), delivering a heavy blow to digital rights in Thailand. Instead of offering citizens protection against fraud, data breaches, theft, or other true cybercrimes, the amendments only worsen the ambiguity and potential for abuse that have marred the CCA since it was first enacted in 2007.
This assault on the already-deteriorating state of digital rights in Thailand has not gone unnoticed. The Thai Netizen Network, a digital rights advocacy group in Thailand, gathered an astounding 360,000 signatures on a petition against the amendment before the Assembly’s vote, and domestic activists have mounted online protests in the days since the vote. International rights organizations have made statements against the amendments on behalf of users and journalists.
Thailand’s current military government stepped up information controls after taking power in a military coup in 2014, with particular sensitivity to opposition or criticism of the military’s role in politics. On top of that, each of Thailand’s governments in recent decades—democratically elected or otherwise—has demonstrated increasingly strict attitudes about lèse majesté, or the Thai law against insulting the country’s monarchy. The original CCA expanded lèse majesté to the Internet. Since its passing, the law has been invoked to block online content, criminalize those who create and disseminate it, and intimidate online speakers and Internet service providers, with recent punishments of up to 30 years’ imprisonment.
Since the October death of Thailand’s long-serving king and the contentious installation of his son as successor, state censorship of critical material has spiked. In this political setting, a fortified CCA can be expected to lead to tighter monitoring and stricter censorship by the state.
The most concerning aspects of the new amendments to the CCA fall into three categories: ambiguity for users, dangerous intermediary liability, and lack of accountability.
First, under the original CCA, users risked unknowingly violating vague and constantly changing legal standards. The amendments have made this ambiguity even worse by effectively giving the government a “blank check” to press CCA charges against any dissidents. Section 14 in particular gives too much power to the state to judge the (il)legality of various digital actions, with a list of increasingly vague crimes like disseminating “obscene” data or creating “false” information that is “likely” to threaten “national security, public safety….or public infrastructure serving the national interest.”
Second, Thailand has been notoriously strict with intermediaries like webmasters and message board hosts in the past, holding them criminally responsible for any illegal speech users may bring to their service. The new CCA is consistent with that restrictive stance, but now with a twist. Under Section 15, service providers are explicitly exempted from any penalty if they can prove they complied with government takedown requests. While that may be seen as relieving the pressure on ISPs, putting the burden of proof on them will actually result in more censorship—whether intermediaries take down content at the state’s request or preemptively censor themselves and their users to avoid state scrutiny.
Finally, the amendments establish a “computer data screening committee” to monitor content that is not illegal but is found to violate “the public order or moral high ground of the people.” Section 20 specifies a committee of nine appointees that can request court orders to block or take down content. The amendments have nothing to say about how members will be selected or held publicly accountable, nor about what would constitute legal but apparently censorship-worthy information.
The original CCA was introduced in 2007 as an attempt to hold back free digital expression and maintain online the controls that the 2006 military coup hoped to impose on the rest of Thai society. These new amendments are part of the same pattern: a sacrificing of the free flow of information due to a fear of instability in the face of a political transition—in this case, the first new king in 70 years. It is precisely the wrong route for the Thai junta to take. Broader censorship in this time of tense monarchical transition prevents much-needed discussion of the monarchy, the military, and their changing places in Thai politics, and further endangers citizens’ freedom of expression. Thailand’s politicians should listen to the hundreds of thousands of netizens who have spoken out, and reform or revoke this notorious law outright.