August 4, 2017

The Frontlines of Cyber Repression: Thailand and the Crop Top King



Thailand is known for its beautiful beaches, where tourists flock in droves searching for relaxation and culture. But it’s beginning to gain a more notorious reputation for human rights abuses. Digital freedom is receding as governments ramp up cyber repression against activists and critics, and Thailand is quickly gaining notoriety as one of these aggressors.

In June, a man was sentenced to 35 years in prison, though originally faced 75 years, for sharing Facebook posts that were insulting to the Thai monarchy. In May, authorities threatened to shut down Facebook if it did not find a way to remove “inappropriate” content posted by users. In an era where elections are being hacked and cyber crime is a regular occurrence, why is one man going to prison because of Facebook?

The sentencing of Wichai (whose last name has been withheld to protect his family) is not an isolated incident. It constitutes just one example among an ever-expanding global pattern of cyber repression. A similar example is the request made to Google and YouTube last year to remove royal “insults” from their platforms. The request was spurred by an incident in Germany, where the Thai King was spotted sporting a yellow crop top that displays a full body dragon tattoo while walking around a mall with his mistress. Thailand dispatched a high-level delegation to meet with Google executives indicating the importance that they attached to this request.

Cyber repression represents the new face of human rights violations—one that is emerging in tandem with our increasing reliance on digital networks and ubiquitous connectivity. As journalists, activists, and feminists use the Internet to explore, organize and collaborate, it is not altogether surprising that governments are targeting digital activities when they do not align with their priorities.

Thailand, experts note, has a history of repression going back at least a decade. Repression has spiked since 2014 when the new junta, led by retired army chief General Prayuth Chan Ocha, tightened restrictions on the media, as well as phone and Internet use. The country’s original 2007 Cyber-Crime Act was modified last year, which Human Rights Watch blasted for restricting free speech, enforcing surveillance and censorship, and retaliatory measures aimed at activists.

In 2015, a proposal known as “Single Gateway” was put forward, with the intention of easing the burden of monitoring Internet content by reducing Thailand’s 12 internet gateways to a single, state-controlled portal. The proposal caused significant and widespread backlash across Thai society; business groups, gamers, and civil society expressed significant enough concern to see the plan dropped in late 2015. Authorities went a different path by introducing an updated version of the earlier Computer Crime Act.

At the same time, virtual civil disobedience is increasing. An anonymous group calling itself the Thailand F5 Cyber Army is waging a battle with the Thai government with Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks and other means. The problem is these actions are having the opposite effect of what was intended, providing a justification to authorities for a crackdown.

Overall, we have an incomplete picture of the cyber repression landscape. One obstacle is lack of a macro perspective of the subject. This is one reason why we are launching our project on cyber repression, which aims to develop a dataset that documents worldwide incidents of cyber repression so we can use empirical analysis to dive more deeply into the problem. This initiative, in turn, will help enable further research, advocacy, and policy on these activities—the who, what, when, where, why, and how of its occurrence.

This post is the first of many in which we will begin the process of documenting the digital frontlines of cyber repression. By building better awareness about cyber repression, we hope this blog series will help illustrate current examples from across a wide spectrum of states and highlight actions being taken to push back on repression. As G.I. Joe once said, “knowing is half the battle.” Right now, our knowledge is limited, but by starting to provide coverage of these incidents of cyber repression, we can get the ball rolling on the hard work that lies ahead.