Nicolas Asfouri / AFP / Getty Images

To be or not to be: The great firewall of Thailand

As one nation hatches a government plan to control the Internet, advocacy groups in Bangkok voice opposition

BANGKOK, Thailand — Tucked away in a coffee shop near Central Bangkok, Phannee Naksuk rushed behind her counter, sprinkling cinnamon on the foam of an iced latte that was beginning to wilt. All around, her dozen customers were stuck on smartphones or laptops, their faces illuminated in faint blue light inside the shady shop.

“This is normal,” she said, noting the near silence of her customers. “Some people come in, order one drink and then just sit and work for hours. When I opened up 11 months ago, I knew I had to have Wi-Fi. Customers just expect it now.”

Phannee’s business reliance on a decent Internet connection is part of the reason why she is so troubled by a recent government proposal to alter the very framework of the country’s Internet.

Thailand, whose Internet currently connects to the world wide web through multiple points, or gateways, is now considering consolidating all the gateways into one central government-controlled point. A move, the government says, to allow for easier monitoring and interception of materials deemed inappropriate.

“Why does the government want so much control over the people?” said Phannee.

Last week, as Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, stood to receive the UN’s ICTs in Sustainable Development Award in New York, fierce opposition was already growing at home, as details of the proposed change began picking up momentum online.

News of the proposal had first emerged a week before, after a Thai programmer spotted the development in a legally-binding cabinet order and spread it on social media. The wording and suggestions made in the order are explicit.

In Section 1.2 of the June 30 Cabinet Resolution, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology [MICT] is told it must proceed with “implementation of a single gateway to be used as a device to control inappropriate websites and flow of news and information from overseas through the internet system.”

The proposal has since become popularly known to many in the country as “The Great Firewall of Thailand” in a nod to the strict control that China’s party has over its own Internet services.

By international standards, Thailand’s Internet is already considered heavily policed, with its contentious Computer Crime Act of 2007 and an estimated 110,000 websites blocked as of 2010. Freedom House stated the country’s internet was “not free” as of 2014.

Opposition voices now state that the latest move indicates an attempt by the government to once again monopolize control of the Internet, a stricter stance that generally held sway before the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) formed in 1998 and began the slow process of liberalizing the country’s Internet.

‘Why does the government want so much control over the people?’

Phannee Naksuk

manager, Bangkok coffee shop

Many netizens are incensed at the proposal, saying that it also opens the door to uninhibited, unchecked censorship, as well as creating a single point of failure, where the entire country’s Internet could go down in one fell swoop. As of Monday afternoon, an online petition opposing the single gateway attracted nearly 146,000 signatures.

Arthit Suriyawongkul, coordinator of the Thai Netizen Network, an Internet freedom advocacy group, said that he’s specifically worried about the possibility of pre-existing legal safeguards being bypassed, leading to unfettered data collection and blocking of information.

“Under the current system, for example, law enforcement has to produce a court order to the Internet service provider [whenever it wants] to block or collect data.” Arthit said. “The proposed single gateway means… [the Government] has a single point of control. With this unchecked power, it is likely to be abused.”

There have been acts of online opposition. Last week the “Anti-CAT Tower Mob” group decided to act, calling on its 129,000-plus Facebook fans to target specific government websites in a simple DDOS (Direct Denial of Service) attack. Thousands of computer users began visiting official government websites while constantly refreshing the page, thereby causing them to crash.

At one point over half a dozen government sites, including the MICT, the Ministry of Defense, and the main government website, were down.

In response to the symbolic cyber-attack, Thai Police announced that those targeting Government sites could be charged under Article 10 of the Computer Crime Act and spend up to 5 years in prison. The website, which allows users to continually refresh websites at preprogramed intervals, was blocked.

A slew of government officials shortly thereafter took to the public sphere in an attempt to allay fears over the proposal.

At a press conference, the Minister of Information and Communication Technology, Uttama Savanayana, stressed that the single gateway was intended to increase Thailand’s competitive edge in the online economic sector.

“The government does not have a plan to implement these things, but just to study it, to look after the youth.” Uttama said. “Don’t worry that Internet freedom will be taken away.”

This statement echoed those made by many other ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Prajin Juntong, who said the Government and MICT “are studying the possibility of this plan, because there is a lot of information flowing in and out.”

Under the current system, for example, law enforcement has to produce a court order to the Internet service provider [whenever it wants] to block or collect data. The proposed single gateway means… [the Government] has a single point of control. With this unchecked power, it is likely to be abused.

Arthit Suriyawongkul

coordinator, Thai Netizen Network

Yet these assertions about the single gateway seem to contradict the legally binding order that was made public at the very beginning. Such inconsistencies have only managed to add to the overall confusion on what the status is on the proposed single gateway.

Multiple requests made by Al Jazeera for an interview with a member of MICT were unanswered at the time of publication.

Supinya Klangnarong, Commissioner at the National Broadcast and Television Commission (NBTC, the successor to the NTC), said that all she knew about the proposal was what she had read online or in the news.

“It’s been very unclear from the government itself. As someone working at NBTC, we have not been informed…I haven’t seen any papers or had any meetings.”

She expressed confusion as to why the government would propose the single gateway, considering its recent pledge to become a regional hub for digital economy and the negative effects such a move could have on the private sector.

“I think most of [the private digital companies] may leave or give up. Only some of the industries with close connections to the government would agree to this proposal, but then you hurt diversity and the freedom that you need to thrive.”

At suggestions of the increased efficacy in security and surveillance, Supinya considers it simply unfeasible.

“Even if you go back to a monopoly and make freedom of expression worse, trying to control all the information, it’s just not realistic!”

“In Thailand we have a [saying]: ‘It’s like riding an elephant to try and catch a grasshopper’.” 

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