Clipping the Net
DON SAMBANDARAKSA' s report on a recent roundtable discussion on Internet censorship in Thailand shines a light on an issue clouded by confusion and secrecy
The YouTube website.
'The question of censorship is simple. Do we reduce the freedom of the Internet to conform to Thai society today, or do we increase freedom in our society to match the Internet? In my opinion, that decision was already made in article 78 of the 1997 constitution (on universal access to ICT). However, when the ICT Ministry was set up, their staff forgot to read the constitution."
These were the words of Dr Rom Hiranpruk, assistant president of the National Science and Technology Development Agency speaking at the recent YouFest YouMove roundtable on Internet censorship. The event was hosted by members of the Blognone.com website at Internet Thailand to debate the issue of the controversial censoring of YouTube by the ICT Ministry (MICT).
Dr Rom warned that the current trend on silencing dissenting views means that Thailand is in danger of falling into a dictatorship by majority. "This is not democracy. In a democracy, minority views and freedoms are respected. Today we are getting closer to the Ministry of Truth in (George Orwell's) Nineteen-Eighty-Four," he said.
Rom reminded people that while most of the censorship was being done in the name of cultural purity, the Thai word for culture, wattanatham, is made up of two words - wattana meaning evolution and tham meaning truth or justice. Culture evolves and changed. He pointed out that before the reign of King Rama 6, it was culturally acceptable for people to go around almost naked,whereas today, someone dressed that way would hardly be considered "cultured".
Thanapol Eawsakul, editor of the banned political quarterly Fah Diew Kan (Same Sky), explained how banning books and websites was not about banning bits and ink, but about snubbing ideas that run contrary to the government's views.
What is dangerous is that today the state agrees on censorship. The state, according to Thanapol, is not just the MICT or the government, but includes citizens and mainstream media, all in agreement that certain ideas should be banned and not discussed. He cited as examples the way academics cannot do research into the semi-mythical status of Yah Moh, founder of Korat (Nakhon Ratchasima), and that none of the mainstream media questions the 30-billion-baht military budget increase in the next annual budget.
"Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat had much more power than the current Council for National Security (CNS), and everyone agreed he was a dictator. However, he only banned two newspapers and two political books between 1957 to 1963. The rest of the banned material was pornographic. But what happened was that authors, publishers and people in general were censoring themselves. That is similar to Singapore today, where nobody dares to question anything," he said.
Finally, he pointed out that there is a lot that can be done with sarcasm and the written word to express dissatisfaction with our level of freedom in society today without actually breaking any law.
CJ Hinke, a researcher at Thammasat University's Faculty of Liberal Arts who runs the Freedom Against Censorship Thailand campaign, explained how he came to his absolutist stance against censorship when he found out that he could not read the book, the Devil's Discus, by Rayne Kreuger, of which there are only two copies left in Thailand. One is at Thammasat, the other at the Siam Society. However, the latter copy was almost destroyed by the board of the Siam Society, before someone in the Palace intervened. Interestingly enough, a Thai translation of the book was only banned on 31 May 2006 under the orders of then Police Commissioner Kowit Wattana.
The recent banning of the YouTube website for one video which was considered offensive may be depriving Thailand of more than an entertainment venue.
"Recently, the BBC has partnered with YouTube and they will be putting 75,000 hours of archival footage - the entire history of the 20th century - on YouTube on a revenue share basis for the world to see. Everyone in the world, apart form Thailand, that is," said Hinke.
He was also critical of the fact that the ICT Ministry is keeping the list of blocked sites a secret. While most of the time visitors to a banned site are confronted with the Cyber Inspector's Green Eye logo, some sites, such as YouTube, simply spew out a network error.
"One of the hallmarks of the actions of the MICT is that they are acting illegally. There are no laws that allow the censorship of the Internet; they are doing it in secret. To my mind, secret government done illegally has all the hallmarks of dictatorship," he said.
In 2005, Thammasat University's Faculty of Political Science did a study on banned books in Thailand which revealed that between 1850 and 1999, 1,275 books were banned in Thailand by being announced as such in the Royal Gazette. Most were labelled as promoting communism.
The very first book that was banned was a book on Thai tax law by an Englishman called Doctor Bradley.
"The reason given was that if Thai people knew what the law was, it would create divisions in society. Well, of course it would. You can't have the poor people knowing how much the rich people have," Hinke said with a healthy dose of sarcasm.
He echoed sentiments that society was self-censoring itself when he said that two recent books, the Revolutionary King and the King Never Smiles have not been officially banned by announcement in the Royal Gazette even though everyone assumed they were.
However, despite the book not being banned, there are over 100 websites on the book ranging from discussion or ordering the book that are banned by the MICT.
"I love the King. I don't think that what anyone says in a book or movie will change what we think about the King. So we have a bunch of civil servants whose salaries are paid out of our tax money who presume to speak for the King; who presume to say what is critical of His Majesty. That is the very definition of lese majeste; that these bureaucrats presume to speak for the King," Hinke said.
Jitat Fakcharoenphol, from Kasetsart University's Computer Engineering Faculty continued on the theme of the book, the King Never Smiles, which is now a point of intense debate on the Thai Wikipedia (th.wikipedia.com).
Two chapters, 1 and 15, were translated by someone and the translations were linked to in the Wikipedia entry. However, opponents argued that by linking to an unauthorised translation, Wikipedia would be infringing on copyright.
This is the first time that copyright law has been used to silence debate on the open encyclopaedia, Wikipedia.
Paiboon Amornpinyokiat, a lawyer at an international law firm, said that until recently, the government did not have any legal basis to censor the Internet. However, today the MICT uses a catch-all clause in the Council for Democratic Reform (now the CNS) decree in the aftermath of the 19 September 2006 coup that allows the ministry to handle the Internet and communication-related matters for the sake of national security.
"Today, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal - everyone - is attacking the government on the way they have blocked hi-thaksin.net, youtube.com and political discussion on pantip.com," he said.
However, things may change with the new Computer Crime Law which last week was passed by the National Legislative Assembly (It still needs royal endorsement before it can be formally enacted into law). Article 17/1 gives power to the ICT Minister to handle matters on the Internet regarding the monarchy and national security. The minister will have to ask the court for an order approving a ban.
"Peace and social order is included under national security, and that also means pornography," he said, worried if the law was too far-reaching.
At this point, someone in the audience pointed out that it was disturbing to see the Computer Crime Law being aggressively pushed by the Surayud government while its counterpart, the Data Privacy Law, the purpose of which is to protect our rights online, has disappeared off the radar.
It was also noted at the roundtable discussion that another worrying point is that under this law, if Internet Service Providers do not successfully block banned material, they will be under a lot of trouble.
Paiboon said that Thailand lacks a law allowing for fair use of copyrighted material, something that most other countries have. Rather than adopt this heavy-handed law, he suggested the government help support industry groups like the Thai Webmasters' Association and their drive towards self-regulation.
Dome Charoenyost, Chief Technical Officer of 101 Global, the web hosting company that has among its clientele Ekkayuth Anchanbutr's controversial ThaiInsider.info political website, lashed out at the farcical manner in which censorship is being conducted today.
"I got an email from someone at the MICT telling us to shut down the (ThaiInsider) website. They said they had tried to call me but could not get through, so I pulled the plug. Then Ekkayuth held his now famous press conference about the affair and the MICT denied ever ordering the site to be shut down. I said, 'Here's the proof,' but by then the person who was my contact at MICT had disappeared and was not taking any phone calls," he said.
Direct links coming
Dome said that, while he did get requests from the MICT to block a site, whether he did so or not was not an issue as it would be blocked anyway at the International Internet Gateway (IIG) run by CAT Telecom. However, that will soon change with more ISPs now able to link directly overseas.
"Pacific Internet Thailand links directly to their parent company Pacific Internet in Singapore. How are you going to block that?" he asked.
Following the Taiwan earthquake that left Thailand's Internet crippled, True has used the situation to convince the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) of the need for more direct links and was granted permission to link overland to Malaysia. TOT has also put in a new IIG that is not currently used.
With two gateways, the MICT cannot simply tell CAT Telecom to block websites. These requests for cooperation now actually mean something. Dome proceeded to show the room an email with such a request and a list of websites that he has to block.
The number of sites on this list took the audience aback, as it came in at 17,699 sites as of 24 April 2007.
"The problem for the ICT Ministry is that today, there are companies like China Telecom and VNSL from India coming to me to sell me bandwidth directly over True's network at a price which is much cheaper than CAT. How can the government block these carriers?" he asked.
He said that even today, the easiest way to access an uncensored Internet is by renting a server overseas and set it up as a VPN (virtual private network) server.
"Today I can access YouTube. Can they block this? Can they block a VPN server? It's not porn, and it has nothing to do with security, but I wouldn't be surprised if they found a way to twist the interpretation of the law," he said.
However, with nearly all foreign companies using VPN every day for network security reasons, it would be a stretch to ban VPN only for Thai nationals who are not employed by multinationals, and banning VPN would open up a network security nightmare.
Dome said that there is a body in the government that has to monitor web boards such as Pantip and Prachathai which is now developing a software robot that can scan these forums and sites for names like Sonthi and Saprang, and report the IP address of any person who posts a comment using them. If this is true, Thailand is on the verge of becoming a surveillance society.
"I've heard that they are going to hire a developer to do this within the next two weeks," Dome claimed. One woman in the audience said that today she was ashamed of being Thai, as even Malaysians now say that they do not want to block the Internet like their neighbour.
Another middle-aged man pointed out that the ban on YouTube actually promoting a certain video. "My mother, who is old and doesn't even know how to turn on a computer, was shown the clip and told me how evil those people were. Perhaps fewer people would have seen the clip if it was not censored," he said.
Representatives from the MICT, Police and Ministry of Culture were invited to talk at the roundtable discussion, but all declined.