Big Brother is Watching You — Thai cyber-inspectors work overnight

June 7, 2007

A story of cyber inspectors team from Bangkok Post by Piyaporn Wongruang.


Cyber Censors

A small team of inspectors works round the clock monitoring political websites

Story by Piyaporn Wongruang (Bangkok Post)

Chai slowly turned off his mobile phone after being informed by his office colleague that he had an urgent appointment to attend to and that Chai would have to come back into work.

The previous nights had been long and tiring for Chai and his staff. They had to stay awake, their eyes fixed on websites they had been informed might contain political content detrimental to national security.

Now they would have to stay awake again, for another night.

Chai, who does not want his real name used, headed glumly back to his office.

“Two of our guys have just knocked off and I’m not sure who will be able to stay tonight,” he is told.

Since the Sept 19 coup, telecom officials like Chai and his colleagues, about six of them, have spent much of their time – often at night when most people are asleep – closely monitoring websites the authorities fear might disseminate provocative content.

The internet activity comes at a critical time, when there are political divisions in society. The internet can deliver messages instantly and in an interactive way and those in power fear the content may trigger violence, which could cause major damage to the country.

According to the Information and Communication Technology Ministry, websites deemed harmful to national security are becoming more involved in the political turmoil.

In the past, they largely concentrated on external issues, on violence in the South and on transnational crimes like drug trafficking and financial fraud. Now, they are dealing with political issues.

New websites disseminate messages attacking political opponents, in sophisticated operations that are difficult to detect.

The ministry has formed a special team to closely monitor them, and sometimes this requires a lot of time and effort.

Chai says there were times when he was hesitant to judge if the content of a website he was watching challenged national security.

Sometimes they contained messages which openly attacked the government or high-profile figures on the Council for National Security. Sometimes they carried information about the monarchy or controversial political events.

Monitoring staff became frustrated trying to decide whether the content was aimed at stirring up public discontent and therefore should be silenced or curbs placed on it.

It is a very complex issue as the internet makes it possible to reach out in a sophisticated manner, he said. There were sounds, pictures and movies which deliver the messages attractively and instantly.

Is he worried? “Yes, we are, because we all know we are in a period when society is divided,” he said.

To help them recognise politically provocative websites, Chai and his staff have been instructed to concentrate on content which tries to persuade people to act politically in public – for example, websites which invite people to gather and demonstrate.

This has not been easy, however. Occasionally they must take what they have stumbled across to a ministerial committee supervising internet filtering to decide whether the website is provocative to such an extent that it should be blocked or otherwise curbed.

The team also hears from a national security unit which monitors web content and sometimes asks Chai’s team to take further action.

Once they get their instructions, Chai and his staff ask either the internet service provider (ISP) or webmasters they are in contract with to block some content or close down the site.

“We don’t always get a swift response, though,” said Chai. “The ISPs need proof from us too and sometimes the people we deal with have gone on holiday, so we cannot contact them quickly.”

Chai’s colleague Nee is tasked with coordinating with those people. She, too, has to stay at work if required – and this means she has to leave her mother at home alone.

She accepts this as being her duty as a government official, and says she does not want to see any further social divisions in the country.

“Everything will go downhill if we allow our society to become more and more divided,” she said.

The team has been regularly monitoring around 10 websites including the highly controversial http://www.hi-thaksin.net.

The interim government has blocked about 35 websites, compared to about 13,000 websites closed during the previous government, according to the ministry.

ICT Minister Sitthichai Pokaiyaudom said the ministry has used the criminal code to deal with provocative content such as pornography and lese majeste.

But for content affecting national security the ministry has relied largely on the Council for Democratic Reform’s announcement No.5, which empowers the ministry to curb any web content deemed to disrupt political reform.

The ministry has also proposed legislation on computer-related offences.

It hopes the law, when enacted, will encourage a greater sense of responsibility by all parties involved, including service providers, since it lays down clear penalties, the minister said.

The CDR announcement will be gone, along with the the interim government, sooner or later, and the law was needed, he said.

Chiranuch Premchaiporn is manager of http://www.prachathai.com, a website providing information on social and political issues which is occasionally asked by the ICT ministry to screen certain content posted on its web board.

She said the surge in political content on the internet reflects the limited space currently provided in other media, amid people’s rising need to express their opinions.

Drawing on her own experience, Ms Chiranuch believes internet users are mature enough to distinguish between the information they receive, and to be selective in what they choose to believe.

The best way to deal with the internet is to let the information flow rather freely, and at a certain point it will balance out naturally, she said.

“It’s true that certain content should be under control, such as pornography, but in fact we already have existing laws to deal with such content, including the criminal code.

“If we all really want a certain amount of censorship, it should start with an agreement in public, rather than letting someone say we should now have censorship,” said Ms Chiranuch.

She said co-responsibility under the new law was a good principle, and it should be paired with the principle of protecting internet users’ right to information.

More important, she said, the internet possessed the unique characteristic of instant and interactive communication, and this made it almost impossible to deal with through controls. Officials would have to invest too much time and energy to hunt down inappropriate information.

At Chai’s office, the discussion has become intense. Chai and his colleague glare at each other.

“I have a family to take care of, so you guys just do it, right?” Chai says, making a final decision. It’s already after 4.30pm, when government staff usually go home.


source: Bangkok Post, Cyber Censors, June 07, 2007 ( http://www.bangkokpost.com/News/07Jun2007_news98.php )

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