Thailand’s improving internet freedom under the new government

By Pett Jarupaiboon

Thailand’s politics is currently in transition. Thai voters voiced their demands and are looking for a change after almost a decade under the Prayuth regime. As the winner in the election, the Move Forward Party (MFP) is trying to form a government and among the sweeping policies to reform the country, digital policies are among their priorities. MFP is sending their candidate, Natthaphong Ruengpanyawut, to take a leading role in the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (MDES). Unless they are unable to form the government as they are supposed to, we will have Natthaphong as the new Minister.

Internet freedom is one of the fundamental rights in this modern era. It captures key ideas like the free flow of information, privacy protection of individuals online, and freedom from state censorship, among others. The lack of these fundamental rights has been heavily criticized under the previous regime.

Let us take a quick recap of what has happened in the past few years and the prospects going forward.

Freedom on the Net 2022 by Freedom House ranked Thailand as not ‘free’ and it scored 39/100. As they explained, “The internet is severely restricted in Thailand. A wide-ranging crackdown on online expression was carried out by the military-led regime in response to pro-democracy protests that started in July 2020 and continued throughout the coverage period.” They explained further that “State-sponsored attacks, intimidation, and harassment targeting individuals for their online activities also continued. The government repeatedly extended the enforcement of a repressive emergency declaration issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, imposing further constraints on fundamental freedoms.”

A few examples should be discussed here. The Cybersecurity Act (CCA) came into effect in 2019, with the theoretical primary objective of safeguarding against and dealing with cybersecurity risks. Nevertheless, the legislation falls short of safeguarding online freedom and privacy. An instance of this is observed in the requirement for designated telecommunications and technology companies, responsible for critical information infrastructure, to continuously monitor and disclose developing threats to the government, potentially involving the sharing of sensitive information. Moreover, in 2019, the government claimed to invest in efforts to purportedly fight misinformation by establishing ‘the Anti-Fake News Centre’ to address false and misleading information that violates the CCA. Also, the Cybercrime Investigation Bureau was formed within the Royal Thai Police in 2020 with the primary objective of taking strong action against computer-related offenses, specifically those that pose a threat to ‘national security’ and involve the dissemination of false information, commonly referred to as ‘fake news.’ In 2021, another center was established within the Ministry of Justice’s Department of Special Investigation to investigate false information related to the pandemic that undermines the government’s efforts in managing it. The government’s attempts here were deemed by several observers (including those from the current MFP) that they are used to target users who post content that is critical of those in power.

So far, MFP has promised a better prospect going forward. Their focus on cybersecurity will not be on the contents but on the vulnerable state’s digital infrastructures and systems at different levels. The party has declared its plans to dissolve the Anti-Fake News Center and undertake a thorough reorganization of MDES. In a recent online statement, the party outlined its proposed modifications, highlighting the significance of preserving rights, freedoms, and unrestricted access to information. The party further affirmed its conviction that it is not the government’s responsibility to dictate the truth but rather to foster a society where different viewpoints can be explored, discussed, and presented.

Taiwan’s civil society organization called ‘Co-Facts’ was chosen by the MFP to illustrate its ideas. For those who are not familiar with it, Co-Facts provides an automated response to combat fake or misleading messages circulated through the LINE messaging app by providing a well-sourced report, created and reviewed by a diverse group of over 2,000 volunteers, including professionals. This inclusive approach allows anyone interested in becoming a fact-checker to contribute. The objective is to ensure reliable information is accessible to all.

Additionally, the MFP maintains the conviction to abolish all forms of previous government’s Information Operations (IO) initiatives, which can be seen in the annual budgets. Last but not least, the Anti-SLAPP law will be one of the MFP’s key actions going forward. As revealed by an MP from the MFP, the party has submitted a proposal for the Anti-SLAPP law on multiple occasions and will advocate for the previously proposed draft. Consequently, the Anti-SLAPP law will be among the legislative initiatives that the MFP will actively pursue, with the primary objective to grant individuals the right to criticize, especially regarding matters that serve the public’s best interest.

It remains to be seen if the MFP will be able to form a government, and if so, to what extent they can deliver on the promises made. But up until this point, we can see a good prospect of internet freedom.

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