The new digital economy legislation and amendments to the wide ranging Computer Crime Act will usher in a new era for the internet in Thailand. The new laws give the authorities in Thailand strong and comprehensive executive powers which internet companies, even giants such as Google and Facebook, will have to respect.

thailand-minister-communications-technolgy-facebook-google-online content
Thailand’s Communication Technology Minister Uttama Savanayana guided legislation through the National Legislative Assembly which strengthens the executive powers of Thai authorities to regulate online activity and provides a framework for the development of Thailand’s indigenous digital industry. The new laws follow extensive consultations with online players such as Google, Facebook and Line. (Source: Facebook/Thai PBS)

Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly has passed legislation that simultaneously sets up a framework for government initiatives to develop Thailand indigenous online economy as well as strengthening the powers of Thai  authorities to regulate online content.

Online control for Thailand’s post coup government

The move is a significant step in the Thai government’s efforts to control online news and commentary in the kingdom. Since the National Council for Peace and order came to power in the 2014 military coup it has shown a steady resolve on the subject. In the aftermath of the coup the newly installed military authorities sent a former commander of the Technology Crime Suppression Division to seek cooperation for Thailand’s major internet and social media operators. As well as Google, which is the dominant search engine in Thailand, social media outlets Facebook and Line each have a massive Thai user base with over 35 million users. The government’s representative Major General Pisit Pao-in was dispatched to meet the internet companies just after the 2014 coup and even visited the regional headquarters of the internet giants in Singapore and Japan.

Thailand enacts strong sanctions against illegal online activity

Thai authorities have now enacted new powers through amendments to the wide ranging Computer Crime Act. The key changes increase penalties for online offences but more significantly, they widen the government’s executive powers to issue regulations.  The legal changes provide mechanisms which give a legal basis for requests to internet companies and operators to co-operate with authorities. The legislation also strengthens consumer protection against unsolicited email. The new legislation provides for fines of up to 200,000 baht and also prison terms for companies or individuals found to be in breach of the new law’s requirements.

New powers assist Thai authorities in crime crackdown

Some of the more significant changes include a power under Section 20(3) to block any website which contains illegal content. This is seen as a necessary move by Thai authorities who have stepped up a campaign against international copyright and patent infringement activities including the sale of pirated goods online. The current regime has also been consistent in its efforts to tackle illegal gambling in Thailand. Increasingly such activity is moving online.

Committee which can take websites offline in Thailand

The sweeping new powers to control online activity are also apparent in Section 20(4) of the bill. This prohibits content that is not conducive to social order and the good morality of the people. The law calls for a screening committee of five people which will include two members of the private sector. This committee will have the power to decide which websites should be blocked on the basis that all five committee members agree. The committee will be appointed by a new Digital Economy minister. This will be a new cabinet position which the new bill creates. The new legislation also provides for another committee to impose fines and even jail terms on companies and individuals found guilty of online hacking, data theft and forgery.

The regulations also provide for a mechanism whereby the authority can notify a web operators that online content infringes legal requirements. The new notice and takedown procedure will allow web companies to comply with the order and if they can provide that they have done so then no liability will ensue.

Google has indicated to Thai authorities it will abide by Thai law

Earlier this year worldwide internet giant Google expressed concerns at Thailand’s existing Computer Crime Act which has now been updated. Following a meeting between representatives from Google Asia Pacific and members of the the Thai government’s media reform committee it was agreed that Google would outline their concerns in writing.

The media reform committee, set up by the Thai government, provides authorities a means of interacting with international online operators who dominate the market. The committee was purposed with the task of furthering the agenda of the National Council for Peace and Order in the regulation of online activity. Significantly, a spokesman for the committee, Apichart Jongsakul In January said that Google had indicated that it would comply with court in orders and take down websites where they were found to be illegal under Thai law.

Crackdown on online commentary which breaches public order

The Thai government has also separately, using its extensive powers, initiated a crackdown on  online activity by citizens found to be engaged in activity which breaches public order or infringes Thailand’s  extremely strict Lese Majeste laws. This has resulted in a spate of arrests, convictions and long jail sentences for those flouting the law. As well as hotlines to report suspicious and offensive activity it is reported that authorities have stepped up detection facilities allowing for both the monitoring and capturing of online content.

Requests to internet companies now have the weight of law

Since 2014, the Thai authorities have unsuccessfully demanded the companies such as Facebook, Line and Google censor or remove content which the authorities deem as offensive or a threat to national security. Under the new regulations which have now been passed, such requests will in the future have the full weight of Thai law. In the aftermath of the 2014 coup, the Japanese based operator of the popular chat application Line said it would consider requests from the Thai authorities relating to online content but pointedly suggested that it would give precedence to the privacy rights of its users.

Positive step to develop Thailand’s own internet players

The new legislation also has a more positive emphasis. The new Digital Economy Bill, which was passed on its first reading by the Thai National Assembly at the end of April also sets out a structure for government assistance in the development of Thailand’s own digital economy.

These include an investments fund, financial incentives and a tax policy which aims to promote the growth of the sector. The bill was introduced to the Assembly by current Communication Technology Minister Uttama Savanayana. The new bill as well as calling for the Thai government to establish a new cabinet level ministerial portfolio and a government department to be called the Digital Economy Ministry. The government will also be required to put forward a cabinet level blueprint outlining Thailand’s plan to develop its digital economy over the coming years.

Use of digital technology to cut government costs

One of the provisions allows for a 10 billion baht to provide low interest loans and investments both to government run and private entities. Thai authorities have been quite active in recent years in using digital technology to upgrade the dynamics and functions of government agencies. During the assembly debate on the new Digital Economy Bill, one NLA member called for the use of digital technology not only to make Thailand more competitive. He pointed out that digital technology could assist in reducing government expenditure. Voraphol Sokatiyanuluk pointed doubt that 75% of the Thailand’s government expenditure of 2.7 trillion baht was comprised of fixed expenditure which could be addressed by digital initiatives.