Thailand backs off blocking Facebook

PM admits govt has no authority to ban social media site over pages violating Thai laws

A person using a computer displaying the Thai Facebook login page in Bangkok on May 9.
A person using a computer displaying the Thai Facebook login page in Bangkok on May 9.PHOTO: EPA

Thailand backed down on its threat to block access to social network site Facebook yesterday as junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha admitted that the government had no authority to suspend its operations.

"All we can do is ask for cooperation from foreign countries, the private sector and Internet service providers," Mr Prayut said.

The government is seeking court orders to take down pages that it deems violate lese majeste and sedition laws.

Mr Takorn Tantasith, secretary-general of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, said Facebook "was cooperating", following a visit to the Thai Internet Service Provider Association's (Tispa) office yesterday.

Tispa, which has 19 Internet service providers (ISPs) as members, had earlier asked Facebook to take down by yesterday 131 pages blacklisted by the government or face charges under the Computer Crime Act.

But Facebook insisted that requests to take down content must be supported by a court order. It earlier said that it will restrict access to content once it determines that the content violated local laws.

Mr Takorn said they have secured court orders for 34 pages and are seeking warrants for 97 others.

Associate Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak from Chulalongkorn University told The Straits Times that the government's threat to ban Facebook was a "disproportionate brinkmanship the military government was bound to lose in the long run".

Thailand has one of the world's strictest lese majeste laws. Under Article 112 of the Criminal Code, anyone who defames, insults or threatens the king, queen, heir-apparent or regent can face up to 15 years in prison.

Since it took power in 2014, the military government has tightened its monitoring of online content, particularly those perceived to be insulting to the royal family. In April, it warned netizens against online interactions with three known critics of the monarchy.

Kyoto University professor Pavin Chachavalpongpun, one of the three critics, told Reuters that the government will achieve little from the ban.

"If Facebook complies, it will be condemned by the international community," Mr Pavin said. "If Facebook ignores the request, then I guess the government will prove to the public that it is serious about this." He warned that there may be more arrests among his social media followers.

The junta detained five people last month for liking and sharing content by academic Somsak Jeamteerasakul, another staunch critic. Mr Somsak lives in France under refugee status and posted on his Facebook page about a plaque that went missing from a public square in Bangkok in April. The plaque marks the 1932 bloodless revolution that ended absolute monarchy in the country.

Human rights lawyer Prawet Prapanakul was also detained last month and denied bail as he faces up to 150 years in jail for 10 counts of lese majeste over Facebook posts. Another netizen was arrested for tagging Mr Prawet in a post.

Facebook has about 42 million users in Thailand.

English tutor Punchanit Bunthou, 24, uses it as a news source and to interact with friends. "We need to have freedom to express our opinions and ideas," she said.

Ms May Rapeephan, 30, a real estate agent, said taking down the social media platform is unfair to people like her who use it for business. "I'm only interested in looking for customers and Facebook makes it easier to contact them," she said. "I am not interested in politics."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2017, with the headline 'Thailand backs off blocking Facebook'. Subscribe