Conviction in Thailand Worries Web Users-WSJ

June 1, 2012

James Hookway

The Wall Street Journal: May 30, 2012

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303674004577435373324265632.html?mod=ITP_pageone_4

A Thai court convicted a local webmaster for failing to quickly delete posts considered insulting to Thailand’s royal family, adding to world-wide concerns over governments adopting increasingly tough tactics to police the Internet.

Webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn holds flowers from supporters in Bangkok. [European Pressphoto Agency]

Chiranuch Premchaiporn, 44 years old, escaped a potential 20-year prison term, instead being fined 20,000 baht ($630) and given an eight-month suspended sentence on Wednesday.

Still, Internet businesses operating in Thailand, including websites operated by global giants such as Google Inc., will likely be chilled by the ruling, which sets a precedent for prosecuting website owners for what their users say online.

In a statement, a Google spokesman said telephone companies aren’t penalized for things people say on the phone, and so responsible website owners shouldn’t be punished for comments users post on their sites. “But Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act is being used to do just that,” the spokesman said. “The precedent set today is bad for Thai businesses, users and the innovative potential of Thailand’s Internet economy.”

Ms. Chiranuch told reporters that she had expected to be acquitted, “but I found the judge’s verdict logical and reasonable.” She added that she was concerned the verdict would encourage further self-censorship in a country where many people already are nervous about voicing their opinions.

The verdict fuels local debate over the way laws to protect Thailand’s revered monarchy are applied. A 61-year-old man died in prison this month while serving a 20-year sentence for allegedly insulting Thailand’s queen in a series of text messages, sending the issue to the forefront of the political agenda in this conservative, Buddhist kingdom.

The ramifications of Ms. Chiranuch’s case extend beyond Thailand’s borders, reflecting a battle for influence over the Internet and how it is used. “It is not inevitable that the Internet will evolve in a manner compatible with democracy,” Rebecca MacKinnon, of the New America Foundation, said in a recent commentary.

A number of countries in the region arefollowing Thailand in preparing laws to criminalize individuals or organizations that let visitors post illegal comments on websites. Vietnam, for instance, is preparing new laws that make it illegal to criticize the ruling Communist Party or to set up Web pages, including blogs, where visitors can post antigovernment messages.

In Malaysia, owners or websites will soon be presumed guilty if any illegal material is uploaded, while in India the government has tried to encourage Internet companies to filter out potentially offensive content.

China, too, is stepping up censorship of the Internet. Last month, the prison-break movie “The Shawshank Redemption” was blocked as a search-term on some Chinese-language microblogging sites after it began to be used as a shorthand reference to the escape of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng from house arrest in Shandong province into U.S. custody.

What is happening in Thailand, however, is sounding alarms throughout the global Internet industry, for the way website owners are being targeted under the country’s computer-crimes law, and for the fact that the country is largely democratic and an important U.S. trade and security partner.

Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act, also known as the Computer-Related Offenses Act, was enacted in 2007 to root out hacking and fraud as Internet use surged in Thailand. The Web is widely used in everyday life in this Buddhist kingdom, with many residents in Bangkok and other cities routinely going online to order pizzas, buy groceries or pay utility bills.

Political analysts say politicians frequently use the laws criminalizing defamation of the royal family and the new Computer Crimes Act as weapons against their rivals. In 2006, army chiefs branded former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as disloyal to King Bhumibol Adulyadej to justify the coup that ousted the former telecoms billionaire from office.

Mr. Thaksin denies opposing Thailand’s monarchy. His sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who now governs the country, has set up a “war room” that trawls the Web for illegal content, in what analysts say is an attempt to show that it is even more loyal to the monarchy than the armed forces are.

Prosecutors said Ms. Chiranuch intended to break Thailand’s strict laws against criticism of the royal family by “intentionally supporting or consenting” to post illegal comments 10 times on her now defunct Prachatai Web board by failing to delete them. Prachatai was founded by journalists, politicians and free-speech activists as an independent, nonprofit, Internet newspaper.

Judge Kampol Rungrat said his guilty verdict was based on one comment that was left on the Prachatai site for 20 days. (The comments in question were posted in 2008.) He said Ms. Chiranuch “didn’t perform her duty in a timely matter.”

Her lawyers responded that there are no guidelines on how quickly such comments should be removed, and that Wednesday’s ruling didn’t provide any either.

The webmaster was sentenced to one year in prison in addition to a fine but her term was reduced to eight months, and then suspended.

Human-rights groups raised their fears about Ms. Chiranuch’s conviction setting a precedent for other prosecutions, turning Thailand into a test-case for how the Internet is governed.

“By convicting the manager of a news website of a crime, the Thai authorities are showing the extreme lengths they are willing to go to stifle free expression,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch. “More and more Web moderators and Internet-service providers will censor discussions about the monarchy out of fear that they too may be prosecuted for other people’s comments.”

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