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Cyber surveillance vulnerable to abuse

Every single day, the government is spending almost Bt1.5 million to block undesirable websites and close down web content.



The several cyber surveillance units know full well their painstaking actions would not help curb or ameliorate any of their concerns. But they are all happy and proud of their works following orders. Better still, the annual budget for their activities which began in earnest in 2001 with a few million baht start-up has now reached an amazing half a billion baht yearly with a special war room at Ministry of Information and Communication Technology. Under the Yingluck government, the snowball effect is getting worse, the cybercrime units will be further boost with extra personnel and budget. After a new panel was set up recently to fight against anti-monarchy on the Internet and headed by mercurial Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung including the procurement of Bt400-million lawful interception (LI) system, now the government has the licence to prey on all forms of voice communications, e-mails, SMS massages and chat rooms. In nutshell, nothing is out of reach for interception orders.

Thanked to the ridiculous ways the Thai bureaucrats think of Internet freedom and ways to control the flow of digital information, especially the anti-monarchy content, these money would obviously be laid waste and worsen still the individual security and privacy would be under threat. In the past, wire-tapping and telephone-tapping, which supposed to be use to track down criminals and other illegal activities, were abused and went after private matters. With the LI system, Chalerm will indeed become the most powerful man in Thailand as he literally will have access to all digital communications in this country. Unless, something are done now with checks and balances system to tightly regulate the use of LI. This system will definitely be abused and misused. In other democratic countries that allow the use of Internet interception, it is being done under strict rules and tight auditing. In the case of Thailand, as Chalerm put it, it will be used to track down the origins of anti-monarchy messages. The interception of Internet is considered unconstitutional without a court warrant.

After the Computer Crime Act came into effect in 2007, Thailand's freedom of expression has suffered greatly. Gone were days when the country was considered one of the region's freest media. Efforts to censor digital data and web sites have increased meteorically since then. Foreign-based media freedom indexes have continued to rank Thailand at the bottom end these days because of many lese majeste cases and heavy online filtering regime. Shut-down websites and pages have reached several hundred thousands, which showed the lack of efficacy. Truth be told, nearly 85 to 90 per cent of these blocked content came from the same sources and websites - they were mirror sites or remailers. A better system of scrutiny and monitoring would drastically reduce the numbers of online blockades. It must be noted that there are web operators aboard with undesirable content who have closed affiliations with quite a few leading personalities of current government.

Sad but true, quite often court officials are readily to grant permissions as required by law without checking seriously the real content of targeted sites. It has led to more workloads and additional shut-down of web pages, making the operation more expensive and impractical as more users are going online. With such a huge number of blocked sites, the country's Internet freedom will be further downgraded which could have reaching repercussion on learning and social progress as well as the growth of information society.

At the moment, due to the Computer Crime Act, many leading government agencies such as Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Interior have set up their cyber police units. They are doing their own things without a common approach or strategy. With mobile technology, social media networking, wireless users have reached more nearly half of the 66-million population. With such huge numbers of online users, the government does not have sufficient bureaucratic arrangements to cope with the growing users. Therefore, ways must be found to enforce good governance, transparency and accountability at both ends users and enforcers. In the case of Internet, the best way must be done through self-regulatory framework. Obviously, whenever this concept is being mentioned in meetings among authorities concerned, there would be rows of laughter from them. Simply put, these people have a fixed mindset as they do not think the Thai online communities, comprising Internet hosts and service providers, software and hardware companies and users would be able to come together and agree among themselves on code of ethics and best practices. Only through them and their conservative methods are the ways to go.

Indeed, Thailand should learn from the good practices of our foreign friends. One of them is Australia's self-regulation on the Internet, which is quite advance and effective ways to provide sanctions against those who are malfeasances. There are many categories of Thai online users, from the naïve to the most sophisticated groups of young and highly educated Net-savvy population. Whenever the latter groups counter problems or perceived misconducts, they either alert each other or take their own action such as delete the undesirable messages. Their social networks are very active and provide much needed information for their netizens - the recent flood was the case in point. Contrary to the official version that these social networks would perpetuate controversial content i.e. anti-royal spins et al to others. Of course, the case of 62-year-old man who received a 20-year sentence for four text messages sent from his mobile phone to a government official was a rare and isolated case.

In the past years, the Thai Journalist Association and its affiliated online related organisations have organised various workshops to increase the capacity and knowledge of computer crime law and responsibility for local users. Indeed, authorities who are dealing with Internet surveillance also need similar training in all areas, especially those related to sociological aspects. Most of them are thinking in terms of technical outcome rather than with a holistic approach that would produce better results. Heavy punitive measures are not the key. Currently, overall capacity of officials who monitor Internet is extremely low, they lack the kind of skills and knowledge to understand the impacts of filtering and other forms of censorship have on overall learning capacity of the Thai people.


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