Internet gateway plan threatens online freedoms in Thailand

Bangkok, September 29, 2015–An initiative in Thailand to create a single government-controlled gateway for international Internet traffic represents a clear danger to online freedoms, the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement today. CPJ calls on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to drop the proposed plan and stop harassing journalists and social media users.

According to news reports, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology was ordered at a September 1 Cabinet meeting to establish a firewall to filter all Internet traffic entering and leaving Thailand. The written order, signed by Prayuth, said the gateway would “serve as a tool to control access to inappropriate sites and the influx of information from abroad,” the reports said. Prayuth’s order called on authorities to “expedite” the gateway’s establishment.

State enterprises and private companies currently operate nine gateways to the Internet in Thailand, news reports said. Information and Communications Technology Minister Uttama Savanayana denied the single gateway initiative was designed to censor the Internet, but rather aimed to lower costs for online businesses, reports said. Uttama said the gateway project was still in the proposal phase and that if implemented would not violate users’ personal data or access to information, the reports said.

“Thailand needs fewer, not more, controls on the Internet,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Prayuth should scrap the one gateway plan and any other designs to block, censor, or surveil the Internet and Internet-based social media applications. Any new laws or plans to govern Thailand’s Internet should be left for a new, elected administration, not his self-appointed military junta.”

The ruling junta, the National Council for Peace and Order, has sought to bolster online surveillance since seizing power in a May 2014 coup, CPJ research shows. Days after the coup, the NCPO made the creation of a single Internet gateway an “urgent priority” to be jointly managed by the army, police, National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, and National Intelligence Agency, according to reports. The gateway as proposed then would administer the Internet, govern websites and tackle provocative content, the reports said.

A Cyber Security Bill approved by Prayuth’s Cabinet in January aimed to establish a committee charged with detecting and countering online threats to national security, stability, the military and economy, news reports said. Under Section 35 of the bill, the committee would be authorized to access information on personal computers, cell phones and other electronic devises without a court order, news reports said. The bill is pending approval in the National Legislative Assembly.

Prayuth’s military government has cracked down hard on online dissent, particularly for postings deemed as offensive to the Thai monarchy, a criminal offense punishable by 15 years in prison under the country’s draconian lèse-majesté law. In the harshest sentence under the law in Thailand’s modern history, a military court in August sentenced Pongsak Sriboonpeng, a tour guide, to 30 years in prison for six Facebook postings ruled as critical of the crown, according to news reports.

Newspaper reporter Pravit Rojanaphruk was held in military detention for three days this month over a tweet authorities saw as critical of Prayuth and the coup. Military authorities also erroneously accused him of sending tweets critical of a personnel rotation at the National Security Council which the reporter neither sent nor retweeted, Pravit told CPJ. Pravit was freed without charge but was required as a condition of his release to sign a form pledging not to become involved in any anti-junta activities or risk seizure of his personal assets, he told CPJ.