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Plan for single Internet gateway in Thailand much feared by social media-crazy netizens

The Thai censorship logo is pictured from a laptop in Bangkok, Thailand, on Sept 25, 2015. According to news reports, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered related ministries to setup a single gateway for all internet traffic, to monitor onli
The Thai censorship logo is pictured from a laptop in Bangkok, Thailand, on Sept 25, 2015. According to news reports, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered related ministries to setup a single gateway for all internet traffic, to monitor online contents and information that comes to Thailand. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Barred from the streets by military rule, Thai protesters took to their computers this week to overload government websites by constantly refreshing their screens.

The denial-of-service attack on Wednesday (Sept 30) night was triggered by activists who urged people to register their objection to the junta's plans for a single Internet gateway.

The plan itself was not new: It had been floated by the authorities shortly after the military seized power in May last year to make censorship more efficient.

Many thought then that it would be just another plan to slip through the cracks of the kingdom's bureaucratic maze. That was until someone unearthed recent documents that revealed the Cabinet wanted to figure out the legislative changes needed to introduce a single Internet gateway.

The subsequent uproar was not unexpected. Thais are voracious consumers of social media. The country has 10 Internet gateways, which are run by both private and state-owned companies.

Merging this all into one single outlet could set the country back a decade, when all traffic went through state-run CAT Telecom and slow uploading speeds were the rule, rather than the exception.

More importantly, Internet users feared the mass surveillance by a government that has proven averse to criticism and sensitive to any insults against the monarchy.

And so, on Wednesday the websites of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, Government House, the military's Internal Security Operations Command, CAT Telecom and even the Ministry of Finance were rendered inaccessible by these online protesters.

The next morning, Information and Communications Technology Minister Uttama Savanayana told reporters the plan was merely under study.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was concerned that the nation's "youth" were using the Internet inappropriately, he said.

Yet, on Thursday night, the number of signatories to a Change.org petition to stop the single Internet gateway plan kept on climbing.

By 11pm, it had more than 140,000 signatures.

Such online protests may not count for much in a country that is ruled by a military government and will not see elections until 2017, at the earliest.

Technology professionals and activists have been thinking up chilling scenarios on how the single gateway plan might be carried out.

Mr Don Sambandaraksa, a correspondent for TelecomAsia.net, wondered in a recent blog if the government would ban encryption.

Mr Arthit Suriyawongkul, a committee member of the Internet freedom advocate Thai Netizen Network, tells The Straits Times that fears that all Internet traffic will be monitored are probably overblown, simply because the state does not have that capability.

What a single gateway could do, however, is to make it easier for the state to monitor targeted individuals.

He remains optimistic that commercial considerations would provide a bulwark for Internet freedom.

"If the public goes against the idea (of the single gateway), the Internet Service Providers will have some confidence to say 'our customers don't agree with this'," he says.

"Even in this political situation, I don't think it would be easy to go forward with the plan."

tanhy@sph.com.sg