Thailand’s military-appointed parliament has passed a cyber control law authorizing a committee to block content deemed detrimental to “public morals”, despite more than 360,000 netizens signing a petition against the bill.
The controversial bill was approved Friday after several hours of debate by the 250-member National Legislative Assembly, where the vote was 168 in favor of the measure, none against and five abstentions.
Among others, the law punishes people “entering forged or distorted computer data or false information into a computer system that is deemed to damage people, national security, public services or infrastructure or cause public panic”.
Those convicted for such offenses face a maximum jail term of five years and a maximum fine of $2,800.
Civil society groups and academics have criticized this section, describing it as “too broad in scope”, even though it no longer covers defamation — as had been the case with an initial version of the law.
Kanathip Thongraweewong, a law professor at Saint John’s University in Bangkok, expressed doubt Wednesday about whether opinions posted on the Internet “could cause disruption of public services such as a power blackout”.
“This clause is too sweeping and could be used to censor opinions. The government could cite this law to sue people who voiced their views,” he told the Bangkok Post.
Another controversial section involves the setting up a five-member committee granted the power “to screen content which could breach public order or public morals even if that content does not violate the law”. The committee can request a court order to block and delete such content.
“This section gives the committee the power to make judgments instead of specifying what is forbidden. The definition of ‘public morals’ will depend on the interpretations of these five persons,” Thongraweewong underlined.
On Thursday, the Thai Netizen Network, an NGO monitoring state control of the Internet, presented to the National Legislative Assembly a petition signed by more than 360,000 Thais asking for the bill to be revised.
“We want the bill to be put on hold and we want the authorities to listen more to public opinion,” the organization’s founder, Sarinee Achavaknuntakul, told the Post.
State authorities have defended the law as an improvement of a previous computer protection law passed in 2007.
The chairman of the assembly committee that drafted the bill, Police Gen. Chatchawal Suksomjit, said Wednesday, “this law provides clearer details. Overall, it is in line with international standards.”
The military government, which seized power in a 2014 coup, also denied that the new bill had anything to do with a “single Internet gateway” project — which was discussed during a cabinet meeting earlier this year — aimed at having all computer data coming from overseas go through a junta-controlled entry point.
Junta chief-cum-prime minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha insisted Thursday that the measure would not authorize the government “to spy on everyone’s secrets”.
“If you truly understand the bill, you will see that not every person will be affected,” he said.
The denial regarding the single gateway project appeared to contradict comments made by Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan the previous day.
“We need a single Internet gateway for the sake of our defense. It will help us to cope with information attacks launched from other countries,” Wongsuman, who also serves as defense minister, told reporters Wednesday.
Since the May 2014 coup, the military has arrested scores of people who posted online comments deemed disrespectful of the monarchy.
Thailand has the harshest lese-majeste law in the world, which punishes those who “insult, defame or threaten the king, the queen, the heir or the regent” with jail terms between three and 15 years.
On Dec. 1, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne seven weeks after the passing of his father, the highly revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Vajiralongkorn, 64 years old, is a much less popular figure than his father, who is celebrated by the vast majority of Thais as the greatest king of the Chakri dynasty, which started in 1782.