Thailand’s long-standing laws against criticizing its monarchy are colliding with the openness of the Internet, as the country balances the promises of progress with the pull of ancient traditions.
Is This Thing On?, or ITTO, is our Wednesday column showing how everyday people use technology in unexpected ways.
Governments just beginning to enjoy the ease the Internet promises are now realizing the serious threats the technology, especially its social and mobile elements, can bring to governance and traditional beliefs.
Countries around the globe are struggling to balance their population’s embrace of mobile communications with order, public safety and streamlining government affairs, and the challenges are beginning to show.
It may seem incongruous to imagine Wi-Fi in the hallowed halls of centuries-old buildings and castles, but ancient countries are quickly modernizing into the Internet era. Governments are still grappling with the rise of social media and connectivity, while trying to preserve cultural and religious institutions in some unsettling ways.
For the most part, Europe’s governments are embracing the Internet’s power in government, as Britain allows iPads in Parliament and Iceland rewrites its constitution through Facebook. But regimes in the Middle East and Asia often view the internet as a threat to their traditional beliefs and power, and their actions in response to the burgeoning trend illustrate their cautious view.
Countries like Thailand, Turkey and Kuwait are especially sensitive to incendiary remarks because their governments and religions depend on each other’s survival. This sensitivity often curtails citizens’ free speech and damages foreign business relations. And, even in democratic countries like the U.S., religious and political interdependence often spurs lawmakers to turn to censorship, highlighting the broad reach of the issue.
The Case in Thailand
Outcry over a legal case in Thailand demonstrates the mounting tension between modern mobile technology and long-standing cultural more. Last month, Chiranuch Premchaiporn received prison time for failing to censor user comments that criticized the country’s royalty.
Thailand has strict “lese-majeste” laws that prohibit the public expression of criticism against royalty in both print, television, radio and Internet media. The law punishes violators with jail time for each insult of the king, queen, or heir.
The webmaster, who manages a news website, must serve an eight-month prison term for failing to cut an offensive comment from her site in under eleven days.
The reader’s comment insulted Thailand’s king, 84-year-old Bhumibol Adulyadej, whom many in the country deeply revere as a demi-god. Although Premchaiporn did not post the material, she is responsible for its message under Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act, a law which criminalizes hosting anti-monarchical content and puts content providers like Premchaiporn at risk for prison time if they fail to censor such comments quickly.
The court reduced Premchaiporn’s sentence because of her cooperation, but Thailand’s standard penalty is one year in jail per offensive comment posted.
The sentence reflects Thailand’s long history of censorship, which is gaining attention and sparking controversy as technology advances in the digital age. Lese-majeste laws are also coming under fire with demands for reform due to the recent death of a 62-year-old man who was serving a 20-year jail sentence for insulting the king. A petition of almost 27,000 signatures calling for reform of the laws was delivered to the Thai parliament yesterday in response to the man’s death.
In striving to preserve its ancient monarchy from defamation, Thailand moved to prevent citizens from accessing thousands of websites and regularly arrests political and religious dissidents. These measures reflect similar practices in countries like China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Syria, where Internet freedoms are either greatly limited or non-existent.
Why Such Severe Consequences?
Thailand’s religious and political institutions are intricately intertwined, prompting the country’s officials to uphold them by punishing Premchaiporn for her online activities.
Premchaiporn is neither first nor the last person to face jail time and fines for her online activities.
In Turkey, virtuoso pianist and composer Fazil Say is under investigation for comparing Islamic heaven to a brothel and suggesting religious leaders are drunkards. His comments did not sit well with authorities, which may sentence Say to one year in prison under the Turkish Penal Code.
Still, Say will likely fare better than Kuwaiti writer Mohammed Al-Mulaifi. The author must undergo seven years’ hard labor for allegedly using Twitter to slander Shi’ites.
And Saudi citizen Hamza Kashgari may face the death penalty after his recent extradition from Malaysia for praising atheism on Twitter.
Other countries are moving beyond punishment and are exploring ways to limit the Internet’s reach. For example, Iran is allegedly planning to build an internal Internet free from religious and political opposition.
The country’s government already shut down online traffic during elections in February to prevent protests, suggesting more such blackouts are likely in the future.
Syria has also darkened the Internet to prevent citizens from denouncing the government, following in the footsteps of former Egyptian president Hosnai Mubarak and Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Bad for Business
Besides hurting the people involved, such legal consequences discourage businesses from operating in countries that prohibit political and religious dissidence.
Google called Premchaiporn’s sentence a “threat to the potential of Thailand’s Internet economy.”
“Telephone companies are not penalized for things people say on the phone and responsible website owners should not be punished for comments users post on their sites,” the company reasoned. Still, Google and other Internet giants may soon face backlash in Thailand if they do not diligently monitor content for anti-monarchical language.
Businesses like these depend on open information sharing, leaving them no choice but to suspend service in the face of censorship threats.
A host of countries including China and Pakistan have already banned Facebook for refusing to delete offensive posts, while both Google and the social network face lawsuits in India over censorship compliance.
Businesses in such countries run the same risk of offending authoritarian governments as do people, a situation that may slowly drive them away. For a country as heavily dependent on tourism and foreign business as Thailand, it could find itself losing ground in the age of Internet-based business if it continues to dampen online freedom of expression.
Escalating Censorship — Coming to a Country Near You?
Despite the consequences of Internet censorship, however, several countries like India, Europe and the U.S. are moving to restrict online activities even further.
India’s planned Committee for Internet Related Policies may soon monitor the country’s online traffic for signs of offensive content. This 50-member United Nations-backed organization may gain further power if the UN’s International Telecommunications Union hands worldwide governments more control over the Internet in December.
The U.S. too is increasing its censorship policies, even as it criticizes countries like India and China for clamping down on citizens’ freedom of speech.
Although the Stop Online Piracy Act failed to pass in January, the new Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act is reportedly even more dangerous to freedom of speech. Opponents say CISPA will give the government freedom to spy on political dissidents and possibly delete their content.
On a smaller scale, trolling is now a misdemeanor offense in Arizona, punishable by up to twenty-five years in prison. And intentionally posting “offensive” images is a crime in Tennessee.
By tightening control over the Internet, the U.S. is discrediting its statements against authoritarian regimes that stifle free speech in this way as well.
Internet censorship continues to silence political and religious dissidents across the globe, threatening citizens and businesses alike.
Governments generally justify strict Internet regulation as a way to maintain social harmony, and to some extent these policies provide short-term stability. But the world’s next generation will likely disagree as their political and social awareness expands.
Despite several governments’ desire to control citizens’ online activities, the Internet is ultimately too vital to darken without relegating one’s country to uselessness.
But countries like Thailand determined to value tradition and government authority above all else will struggle with issues global online connectivity is bringing to their doorstep. For now it seems they are comfortable with paying a steep price to preserve their traditional way of life, but is the model realistic in the long run?