Anti-cybercrime law may fetter free expression on Internet, says SEAPA

alerts-button-1.jpgSoutheast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) is alarmed that Thailand’s interim, military-installed government plans to push through a draft legislation on computer-related crimes which contain provisions that may curtail freedom of expression on the Internet.

On 15 November 2006, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) approved in principle a bill allowing prosecution of perpetrators of computer-based offences, including data theft and dissemination of pornography. A vetting committee will scrutinise the bill in seven days.

SEAPA is concerned that the legislation will be pushed through without any objection and thorough scrutiny, given that the current legislative body is operating under martial law.

In addition, local netizens, including online news publications and academic websites, believe that the government is rushing the law in response to the growing number of websites that are critical of the National Security Council, the junta that installed the present government after staging a bloodless coup d’etat against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on 19 September.

Internet advocates are concerned that the law would give the interim government licence under the “due process of law” to close down legitimate websites, including academic and political sites that provide pluralistic views of current affairs and the ongoing restoration of the democratic process.

Prior to the creation of the bill, the previous government under Thaksin had faced strong protest over the abuse of authority by the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT), which had blocked or closed down websites critical of the government.

The present government is using the high moral ground to justify Internet censorship. At his first meeting with the press on 14 November, newly appointed MICT Minister Sitthichai Pokhai-udom said he believed in censorship. “Even the most avid freedom of speech advocate would change his mind if he sees doctored pictures of his daughter’s head on a naked body, posted on the Internet,” he was quoted as saying in the English-language “Bangkok Post” on 16 November.

Responding to that, Supinya Klangnarong, secretary general for the local media advocacy group Campaign for Popular Media Reform, said that rationalisation was too extreme. “That concern is a particular problem that needs to be addressed, but it should not be used as an excuse to impose blanket censorship,” she said during a forum on Internet freedom and the Restoration of Thai Democracy on 15 November.

BACKGROUND

The bill has been pending from Thaksin’s government. While the intent of the 28-article legislation is to tackle crimes related to hacking and pornography, it also provides legal safeguards for national security, public order and individual reputation which, without given clear definition, could be abused, especially to stop government critics and free speech on the Internet.

For example, article 13 of the draft bill states that those who post content deemed to be a threat to national security or considered an offence under national security law, damage reputation of third party, could face up to five years of imprisonment or a fine up to BHT100,000 (approx. US$2,740), or both. Forwarding a pornographic e-mail can land a person in prison for up to three years and a fine of up to baht 10,000 (approx. US$274).

Members of the Thai Webmaster Association, a club of cyber self-regulators, have expressed concern that the bill gives cyber police the authority to seize computers or servers “suspected” of being used to commit crimes. Shutting down servers is particularly worrisome as it would create a ripple effect on hundreds of websites. The webmasters are also wary of the vagueness in some terms, which means the bill will cast a wide net.

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