The Thought Police in Thailand

 The Thailand Chapter of the Internet Society (ISOC) is about to foist an unnecessary law to control the Internet on an unsuspecting public. The draft has been produced by an Executive that completely fails to represent Internet users in Thailand despite the claimed openness and the aims of the Organisation .

 The Thai Chapter of ISOC was formed in 1996 when its Constitution was written. This lays down the ways in which ISOC is to be run, including the method of appointing an executive committee. This Constitution is fatally flawed and allows for centralisation of power: the Draft Law (and its writing process) is one manifestation of the exercise of such power.

The Constitution is flawed because is lays down impossible conditions for the processes of ISOC: conditions which can then be circumvented by a small core group. Decisions should be made by the General Assembly of members. For a forum (sic)--the word should be "quorum"--50% of the members must be present.

At the time of its founding, with the small number of members--those who promulgated the Constitution--it would have been easy to collect together such a body. Now, however, with a little over 21,000 members (ISOC's figures), bringing together over 10,000 people is (logistically) impossible.

If the General Assembly does not have a "forum", a second meeting held within 15 days is able to vote through any measures with no less than 20 persons present. The Executive Committee has 33 members including the Chairman of the Advisory Council, the Honorary President and the President, Dr. Srisakdi Charmonman.

The President is the only official elected. This is done at a meeting of the General Assembly. He holds the position for two years. All other members of the Executive are appointed by the President.

A look at the list of 33 reveals what are, in theory, some of the top names in the Thai computer and communications industry: technocrats who understand the Sciences of how data passes but not the Art of using it. But this Executive is also a power bloc.

The absences from that list are perhaps more revealing: no women, no ordinary users, no students, no journalists, no business users (outside of telecomms); and certain organisations are absent--their representatives were simply not appointed.

To remove a member of the Executive Committee needs "not less than 3 in 4 majority of the General Assembly," which in practice would require a little over 15,000 votes at a meeting. The Constitution further allows that when the "founding president" finishes his term of office he becomes a permanent member of the Executive Committee.

It is this skewed and entrenched committee that has shouldered the responsibility for creating the Internet Law.

The legislation planned seeks to control use of and access to the Internet in eleven specific areas (see below). As the central philosophy of the Internet has been its openness and freedom of access to information, any such restriction will seriously erode Thailand's growth in this area: free interchange of ideas; access to information; educational access; trade; science; and access to improved technology.

The Internet in Thailand does not need more control, especially of this nature. What it needs is effective self-policing that comes from education. Existing laws are adequate for the traffic that occurs.

There is no English version of the draft law available (nor of minutes of meetings), even though the main points of the draft were copied from Singapore. That in itself should send a warning signal. The needs of Thailand are not best served by alien mores.

Article 11 of the Draft "Prohibits dissemination of information on the Internet" of:
  1. Information that is against the peacefulness of society that leads to the disunity of the nation or leads to the ruin of international relationships;
  2. Immoral information or information which is against the culture and norms of the nation;
  3. Information that disparages religion, religious practices, places of worship. Also, information that disparages highly respected persons or respected places or respected things;
  4. Inappropriate information concerning the King and the Royal Family;
  5. Political issues which impact the nation's security;
  6. Pornography and all related material;
  7. Intentionally discrediting the nation, the Government and government officials;
  8. Cruelty, abuses against human rights;
  9. Promotion of illegal activities;
  10. Information on sex services;
  11. Information which supports gambling.
There is not one item here that needs specific Internet-based legislation.

Each and every one of them has specific laws designed to control the worst excesses but by focusing on the Internet and seeking to restrict the amount of access, a dangerous precedent is set.

In 1992, when the Suchinda Government was battling with street-protesters, an attempt was made to control information. Newspapers and television were censored. The fledgling Internet was not; and nor were telephones or the vast numbers of fax machines. As a consequence, information was able to flow into the country. It was then disseminated by Internet and through the many bulletin boards (bbs) that then existed. Here was a use of the Internet (and related technology) that was in direct opposition to the government of the day: a healthy exercise of the democratic process.

It should be noted that there is no mention in the Draft of whether the information is incoming or outgoing. If something that is thought of as a threat or is deemed pornographic is sent from outside Thailand to a user's mailbox as unsolicited mail, is the user to be held responsible?

Application of such a law must change utterly the way in which the Internet will operate in Thailand. Instead of expanding, it will stagnate. Article 11 applies not only to users sending or receiving information but to the Internet Service Provider (ISP) too. The ISP, which also disseminates--or distributes-- the data, albeit passively, is equally liable under the terms of this section of the Draft Law.

Some would cease operation. All would risk prosecution. Those who wished to remain would need to install such machinery for checking, verifying and censoring that the inevitable delays would choke the service: businesses relying on Internet communication would suffer; doctors trying to access databases and information overseas would have to put treatment on hold; students now beginning increasingly to use the Internet, because up-to-date texts are lacking, would not be permitted the instant downloads of new information that their studies require.

Nowhere in the proposals is there a definition of what may constitute a threat, nor what is pornographic. Such legislation and vague phrasing has historically been the preserve of dictators seeking to prevent free exchange of ideas. If the writers of such laws attempt to control what you read or write, it will affect the way you think and your choice of whom to communicate with.

The draft controls on the Internet do not parallel the freedoms allowed in the Press, on TV and in everyday, personal
(edited: spelling error) communications.

Such controls as less-enlightened nations have placed on their users' access to the Internet--and thus the world beyond--do nothing to advance society. Instead control is focused into a few individuals.

When the law passes its drafting process--as it invariably will--let us hope that whoever forms the Government of the day sees it not for its stated intent as a means of protecting Thai people, but for what it really is: a method of control that will restrict free access to the World and poison any growth in communications at its root.

Draft Two
Draft Three

Graham K. Rogers
December 1997