Mobile phone users in Thailand last week voiced strong opposition to government plans to monitor online conversations on LINE, a popular messaging app. Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra responded by assuring her constituents that individual liberties will be respected and promised to carefully study the surveillance proposal released by the Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD).
If Yingluck wants to dispel notions that her government is restricting online freedoms, she should order Police Major General Pisit Pao-in, commander of the Technology Crime Suppression Division, to refrain from threatening Internet users.
In an interview with Thai daily newspaper The Nation, Pisit warned Facebook users that they can be arrested if they ‘like’ a post that undermines the national security:
[You could be arrested] if you ‘like’ a message deemed damaging to national security. If you press ‘like', it means you are accepting that message, which is tantamount to supporting it. By doing so, you help increase the credibility of the message and hence you should also be held responsible.
I'm not prohibiting from pressing ‘like'. But if you ‘like’ this kind of message, you will be arrested.
Then he added that ‘sharing’ subversive posts is also a crime:
If you share in a way to support the original message, this is wrong. But if you comment against the message, this is okay.
He said that he was “mainly aiming at social peace” when his agency summoned four Facebook users for posting messages that warned of an impending coup.
Pisit neglected to mention that the spread of coup rumors was probably triggered by the unusual presence of military tanks in Bangkok, the country’s capital. There was also a heated debate in the Parliament about a proposed Amnesty Bill which has divided the nation for several months already. Given the context, and the fact that coups d'etats have been frequent in recent Thai history, online discussion about the possibility of a coup should be expected.
Certain authorities have warned Internet users not to support statements that threaten national security, but the government’s definition of what constitutes rebellion, subversion, and national security is vague and questionable. One can imagine many perfectly non-threatening comments or jokes that could be interpreted as such. In a separate interview, Pisit revealed that his agency is is already watching the Internet activities of its citizens, using software “to monitor messages with words that pose threats to national security, such as coup, monarchy, lese majeste, drugs, counterfeit goods and prostitution.”
This was a rare admission on the government's part. It is also surprising that prostitution is now considered a threat to national security. Perhaps the real aim of Pisit is to prevent Thais from openly discussing political issues that could hurt the image and popularity of the nation’s political leaders.
Pisit should heed the advice of Ms Surangkana, the head of the Ministry of Information unit which drafted the Computer-Related Crime Act, who said that the law does not give authorities unlimited power to monitor the activities of Thai Internet users.