Censorship vs security-Bangkok Post

September 25, 2010

Censorship versus security

When is freedom of speech not freedom of speech? When cyber laws define it

Freedom of speech, abuse of power by the government, and the new norms of a democratic society empowered by the Internet were all topics discussed by a wide variety of speakers at a seminar on the third anniversary of the Computer Misuse Act, often known as the Cybercrime law, hosted by the Thai Netizen Network, Media 4 Democracy and the Southeast Asia Press Alliance.

Suranand Vejjajiva, former Minister to the Prime Minister’s Office and currently a columnist for the Bangkok Post, spoke of how bureaucracy has not realised the world had changed because of the Internet and how education and self-immunity, not control, is the way forward in a democratic society.

“Control is a normal part of corporate culture,” he said

“If one looks at IBM, Hitachi or Haliburton, all these organisations have a very strong level of control of the flow of information, which is normal.

“However, what is different is the backdrop. In the west, these controls are imposed on a culture that has been built up over many generations accustomed to free speech and democracy, whereas Thailand is a culture where children still grow up told to study hard and go forth to become rulers of people.

“Overseas, you know what is what. There is clarity. In Thailand there are laws like the cyber crime law. What is state security? What is porn? Would Thairath on a Sunday be considered indecent? What is lese majeste? I can’t say anything further or else the next time I give a speech it might have to be via a tape from a secret location. Thai laws are unclear. The State of Emergency law gives even more power for control.

“In Thailand, print media has fought and won a lot. Lobbying is normal practice. I don’t believe that people in the White House do not lobby the New York Times or call or even threaten them. It depends on how strong the media is and the morals of the politicians and the bureaucracy,” Suranand continued.

“TV and radio have their own problems, as they are owned by the state and run under concession.

“But the Internet is different. The social norms have had decades to adjust to print media before the age of TV but the organisations, the bureaucracy do not understand how the world has changed. From a medium that only a select few people own to something citizen groups or NGOs influence, the Internet belongs to everyone. Everyone has the right to post their opinion, to blog, to upload.

“Social media is a tool of democracy, but if you use it too much, too much democracy is anarchy and nobody ends up listening to anyone.

“If we had stronger social norms, Thailand would never have had to come up with the cybercrime law.

“You cannot control the new world, not like in the past when governments could shut down a printing press. What is needed is self-immunisation, but that leads into another problem – that Thailand needs education reform. From an early age, children in Thailand are taught to accept authority and that the teacher is always right.

“The computer crime law is too universal. If someone disagrees with child pornography, it should be put into a particular law. If you add everything from human trafficking to drug sales over the Internet, you end up with an umbrella law like the cybercrime law.

“Today, society is self-censoring. When people talk about anything, they first have to check if people are ‘red’ or ‘yellow’ and often end up not saying anything. That is a problem as without debate democracy will not function.

“Thailand has this deference to others in power. If a post deemed as unpatriotic, it has to be censored.

“Everyone has to love the King, to love the country the same way,” added Suranand. “Now I just talk to my wife. If she were deep yellow, I would be in a lot of trouble.”

Suranand was once a member of the Cabinet ministers supposed to be in charge of running the country. However, he says the bureaucracy still has its own way of thinking and ignoring the spirit of the law and acting only on the details that suit it. The Computer Misuse Act is a prime example of bureaucracy ignoring the spirit of the law to protect innocents from cyber criminals and turned it into a tool for political gain.

Finally, Suranand said that censorship is like corking a bottle and putting society under pressure. When it explodes, Thailand will have a huge problem.

Sarinee Achavanuntakul, from the Thai Netizen Network, better known as @fringer on Twitter, said the Thai state sees the Internet as another media. Anyone can read Twitter or Facebook, but unlike traditional media, social media does not have an editorial process before it gets published. Social media contributors see social media simply as chatting to friends, only in this case the entire world is looking on.

“But if they would only understand, they would see that social media is naturally conducive to a democratic society,” she said.

The other issue with censorship is that it has a high cost. Not just in terms of money to run a censorship system, but in terms of Internet speed and latency.

Apart from being too universal, the Thai cybercrime law is flawed, especially in article 14, that covers anything that might be damaging to national security. “Might be” is a very vague term that is open to interpretation and abuse.

When people post their expressions on their Facebook or Twitter status, they think they are chatting in their bedroom in private, though in fact the whole world is listening. But is curtailing that freedom to think and reflect then a violation of their human rights?

Finally, Sarinee said the biggest damage to society is in terms of lost innovation. How many new services and websites based on user-generated content could Thailand have built if webmasters were not under constant fear of censorship and faced with the high cost of content moderation?

Roby Alampay from the South East Asian Press Alliance said the eyes of the world were focused on Thailand as Internet freedom is everybody’s problem.

Around the world, people accept there is a limit to free speech. There is universal agreement that child pornography is a concern, but then the slippery slope starts on issues of terrorism and security.

All around the world, people surrender to their governments the right to decide what is right, what is bad. The slippery slope goes from child pornography to decency and respect and before long, everything online is sensitive.

He noted that the same day the Prime Minister was giving a speech on press freedom, the police were knocking down the doors of Prachathai.

It is a balance of responsibility and ethics. How do we counter-balance responsibility and freedom.

It is impossible to legislate responsibility. By its very definition, that is impossible as if something is legislated then it is not your responsibility. In Southeast Asia there is this instinct that there must be a way to legislate responsibility, which is impossible.

Responsibility comes from media literacy and education.

Governments try to censor, though they know it is impossible. But in doing so they send a message to intimidate or to suggest and lead the citizen to self-censorship. People will know what is tolerated and what is not, and then can take their own risk.

The unfortunate thing is that censorship only succeeds in splintering people into smaller, more radical groups where, after a few iterations, only the most hardcore and technology-savvy people will bother to continue the conversation. It radicalises opinion, from an open forum where everyone was welcome, censorship only serves to divide it up into groups which are angry and intolerant of other views. Ultimately it is no longer is a discussion.

The Internet is where taboos are broken and boundaries are being pushed. In Indonesia, it is where sex scandals are broken, for instance. Traditional media often taking a ‘wait and see’ approach.

Alampay said that SEAPA’s advocacy for press freedom is based in its confidence in the free market of ideas; of faith and confidence in people. If you allow people to discuss, make mistakes and, to a certain extent, hurt each other with words, ultimately you will have an environment that fosters freedom of expression and an environment of tolerance and ultimately an environment of understanding.

“Censorship used to be in the realm of public figures, writers and film makers. Now you can be censored as a private citizen. You are censoring yourself in your emails. As soon as you have changed and think that way, you have already self-censored,” he said.

Niran Yaowapa, editor of manager.co.th, spoke of how his website was currently being sued by Thaksin Shinawatra under clause 16 of the Computer Misuse Act, better known as the “Photoshop clause”. Interestingly enough, Thaksin used the computer misuse act to sue Manager as, under normal libel laws, it has been proven time and time again that political parody is not a crime when printed in a newspaper.

“That is the problem with the cyber crime law. Why is something that is legal through traditional media suddenly illegal when done over the Internet?” he asked.

Niran said that when former ICT Minister Professor Sithichai Pokaiudom defended the law to the national legislative assembly, he spoke of the need to protect computer systems from hackers and false information that would damage the economy and society. Why, then, has the law been used primarily to limit freedom of speech? Where are the criminals punished for phishing and hacking?

The law was initiated under the Chuan Leekpai government in 1998. The first draft was completed on September 29, 2003 and forwarded to the council of state by the Thaksin cabinet. The council of state finished its review in 2005.

Niran said that it was presumed that the law was delayed because of Thaksin Shinawatra’s vested business interest in the sector.

For whatever reason, after the coup, the draft was then passed by the Surayud Chulanond cabinet less than one month after it was formed and presented to the National Legislative Assembly on November 15, 2006, the first law to be passed by the assembly. The law was passed and on June 18, 2007 it was published in the Royal Gazette and came into force on July 18, 2007.

Niran indicated that article 18 of the law gives officials wide-ranging powers to close down computer systems, intercept and wiretap. In the original draft, they had this power outright, but after it was debated in the NLA, checks and balances were added by having to seek a court warrant first.

In practice, the courts simply agree with the officers seeking a warrant as they lacked technical knowledge.

Niran noted that former NLA member Kamnoon Sidhisamarn argued that the law was too far-reaching and that too much power was given to officials to punish rather than to protect.

Jiranuch Premchaiporn, webmaster of the Prachathai webboard, said that she has the distinct honour of being the first to have been arrested and charged under the Computer Misuse Act and is now on bail awaiting a number of trials for comments posted by users of her forum that were not removed quickly enough to satisfy authorities.

Prachathai closed its webboard on July 31 as it was impossible, she felt, to comply with the law. Even if every poster had submitted the 13-digit ID number upon registration, there was no way to verify that information and false data could to arresting the wrong person.

“We thought that article 15 – intention – could save us, but it is amazing how intention can be interpreted,” she said.

“If we can’t guarantee freedom of speech, we should not pretend to have it. So we decided to shut down the web board. That is the only reason. No minister ordered me to,” she said.

Now that Prachathai is shut down, Jiranuch said that a lot of underground web boards will take its place and discussion will become even harder to monitor.

She said that the ongoing state of emergency had only given officials an excuse not to follow the few checks and balances in the Computer Misuse Act they felt too cumbersome and arrest and seize equipment anyway.

“That is not good for a democratic society,” she said.

Tham Chuasatapanakij from Media Monitor Thailand presented findings of a study of Facebook groups. Out of 1,807 Facebook fan pages, almost 95 percent were anti-Red Shirt and only 3 percent wanted peace without taking sides.

“Krungthep Poll said that 60 percent of people do not want to take sides. The evidence on Facebook does not seem to support that,” said Tham.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: