Thailand Broadens Powers of Internet Censors

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By Lien Hoang

Alphabet Inc.'s YouTube, Facebook Inc. and other internet companies will face stricter content limits in Thailand next month when a law that curbs criticism of the monarchy and government takes effect.

The ruling military junta tightened internet controls after Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej died in October. Thailand has some of the world’s strictest lese-majeste rules against defaming, insulting or threatening royalty.

The amended Computer Crime Act, which takes effect May 24, bars content that is fake or “contrary to public order or public morality.” It vests a broader mandate in the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society than did the original law.

The law gives companies, including social media entities, internet service providers and any others that could potentially host or transmit offending content, options to reduce their liability for prohibited posts. It also bars them from spamming customers and lengthens the time they may be ordered to store data.

The government will have greater power under the updated law to act if a computer crime affects “national security, public safety, national economic stability, or the infrastructure for public benefit.” The digital ministry would not need court approval to conduct probes or seize data.

Chulapong Yukate, executive chairman of Zico Law in Bangkok, said that provision was written because the digital ministry needs sufficient authority to act in the national interest, and that “the development of technology is fast and that the cybersecurity is crucial to the country.”

Facebook Blocking

The ban on content that’s fraudulent or seen as against the public order was inspired, in part, by Thais who livestream scams on Facebook, says P&P Law Firm founder Paiboon Amonpinyokeat, who serves on a government-appointed review committee.

“Facebook Live in Thailand is quite popular,” Paiboon told Bloomberg BNA by phone from Bangkok. “Now there are many bootlegging websites or bad guys [who] use Facebook Live to sell infringing products.”

Websites that “provide some intellectual property infringement” can be blocked, Paiboon said. However, the updated law clarifies that Thailand’s government won’t necessarily block entire websites for one infraction, just individual pages, he said.

Under the updated law, businesses would be required to publish an official take-down policy on their sites, including a form letting people submit requests for removal. If the digital ministry decides a user has uploaded illegal material, it will dispatch instructions for removing the material to the platform provider.

That process offers a “safe harbor” that can spare companies from penalties, Athistha Chitranukroh, of counsel in law firm Tilleke & Gibbins’ corporate and commercial group, said.

“The best way to protect themselves is to really comply with this safe harbor rule,” she told Bloomberg BNA by phone from Bangkok.

Opponents of the revised law have honed in on the content provision.

“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,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a U.S. non-profit civil liberties group, wrote in a statement on its website.

Spam Opt-out

The act clarifies that companies have the right to appeal take-down demands. Another section in the revised law guarantees citizens the right to opt out of mass messaging from companies.

“The spam provision has been amended to add that sending spam emails ‘without permitting the recipients to unsubscribe’ is an offense,” Athistha said. “Therefore, a business must always provide a clear method of unsubscribing from messages.”

That restriction is expected to impact not just email but social media and messaging applications like Japan’s LINE, the most popular chat tool among Thais.

“We respect local regulations in our operating markets,” Prinda Udomwong, head of communications for LINE Thailand, told Bloomberg BNA by email. YouTube parent Google declined to comment, and Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

The law would also allow the government to compel internet service providers to retain data for two years, instead of one, in special cases.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lien Hoang in Ho Chi Minh City at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

For More Information

The updated Computer Crime Act is available in Thai at: http://src.bna.com/oct

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