Filtering at the Legal Layer

Restriction of open dialogue can take a variety of forms. Systematic and pervasive technical means to block keywords, denial-of-service attacks against websites, and overcrowding discussion platforms in order to drown out dissenting points-of-view are just a few popular methods used around the world. However, many regimes do not have the resources to conduct these widespread and labor-intensive means to enforce people to fall in line with government rhetoric. Therefore, it becomes imperative to create regulatory framework which ensures punishment to those who “cause national panic,” “offend the public,” or other ambiguous jargon to quash “undesirable” discourse. Undesirable, that is, to the regime in power.

The Thai Computer Crimes Act is one such law, where content regulation issues are combined with cybercrimes like hacking and email phishing under vaguely defined terms. One of the most startling features of this law is that internet intermediaries, under Articles 14 and 15, are held just as accountable for the actions of other users to disseminate content “that can cause damage to the third party or public.”

Since the law’s inception, the number of legal cases initiated against internet users has skyrocketed. It is worth noting that the vast majority of these charges overlap with pre-existing legal codes in Thailand used to quell independent political discourse. The most infamous example of this is the lèse majesté law, which makes defamation and insult of “the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent” a punishable offense. Predictably, this law fails to define what constitutes “defamation” or “insult,” and the responsibility to charge someone of violating lèse majesté is on the state or the public, allowing anyone to take action against anyone else.

The Thai Computer Crimes Act and lèse majesté have come under strong criticism for their infringement on rights to free expression by Committee to Protect JournalistsFreedom House, and Reporters without Borders. In recent years, there has been no shortage of individuals who have been persecuted for violation of Thai Computer Crimes Act and lèse majesté.

One case that has garnered much attention is that of Chiranuch Premchaiporn (Jiew), the executive director of the online newspaper Prachatai. Jiew is being held liable under the Thai Computer Crimes Act for comments, posted anonymously on the site by readers, in violation of lèse majesté. While her trial is still ongoing, supporters of internet freedom have rallied to her defense and demanded reform. Local groups such as the Thai Netizen Network and My Computer Law have even proposed specific amendments to the Thai Computer Crimes Act to eradicate persecution of journalists and other free speech advocates.

Fear of accusation of violating these acts, which certainly leads to extensive self-censorship among Thai internet users, proves to be an effective technique for a repressive regime to silence dissidence. Sadly, this also proves that countries do not have to employ sophisticated technical means to suppress internet freedom.

Originally published on Demworks.org

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