"Beat the Censors!", a gift of freedom for Thai Internet users

Written for Global Voices

GV Advocacy

To date, Thailand’s ICT Minister, Dr Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom, has not kept his promise to unblock the popular video-sharing site, YouTube. YouTube, which is owned by Google, was blocked by the Thai government in April 2007, following the appearance on the site of material critical of the country’s king. Last month, Sitthichai declared to the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SAPA) “When they decide to withdraw the clip, we will withdraw the ban.” Despite the removal of the video that mocks King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the ban on Google’s YouTube website is yet to be lifted. The Minister is requesting the removal of a single video frame which, according to him, still remains on YouTube. “That’s not enough. We want the picture removed, too, before we unblock it,” Sitthichai said. And in a recent interview with the International Herald Tribune Sitthichai declared that “YouTube is not a very essential Web site“.

But another Google-owned website has been reported to have been blocked by number of Thai ISPs: the popular blogging platform Blogger. According to an email from Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT), this ban was “due to a single blog critical of Thailand’s military coup, Saturday Voice.” Now Blogger “seems to be accessible using True ISP but not Telephone Organization Thailand TOT Public Company Limited,” FACT adds.

In addition to censoring websites, Thailand’s military government is introducing legislation that will criminalize the use of circumvention tools (see a draft of the Cybercrime Bill) like circumvention software and anonymous proxies, to access blocked websites. The legislation, which has been approved by the National Legislative Assembly and will become law after it receives approval from the King, also carries a penalty of up to five years in prison “and/or a fine of up to 100,000 baht (US$2,700)” for disseminating “improper” content over the Internet. “The new cybercrime law, waiting for Royal assent will, 30 days following, come into effect. If the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) has been as sneaky as we suspect, the law can be applied to anyone using circumvention software, anonymous proxies or any other method which conceals one’s real IP,” said FACT coordinator CJ Hinke in an email exchange.

Since the coup d’état of 19 September 2006 against the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – whose many supporters’ website have also been blocked since last May due to “security concerns” – “the Internet censorship has risen 500%, up now to more than 45,000 websites are blocked by several government agencies,” said Hinke. A blocklist from the MICT (secret May 28, blocklist) available from FACT includes 11,329 websites that have been banned in the past four months a total of 17,793 in total. According to FACT, “this is an increase of 90 political websites blocked in April alone.”

MICT’s blocklist shows a frightening increase in thought control and abrogation of civil liberties and human rights in Thailand (…) the new military government of Thailand has taken all of us to a new dimension of repression. 2007 may well be the 21st century’s 1984 in Thailand,,” writes FACT, comparing the Thai situation to that described in the famous novel by British writer George Orwell, which popularized the phrase, “Big Brother is watching.”

According to the Open Net Initiative, “the current official approach toward filtering is in flux”. However, and while Thailand’s military-backed government is undermining online freedom of speech by blocking critical websites and censoring Web discussion boards, FACT activists are doing a brilliant job fighting back and increasing public awareness of the issue. FACT is maintaining a very active and constantly updated [blog] campaign, reporting on censorship, running petitions, providing circumvention tools and guides (in Thai and English) for anonymous blogging and bypassing censorship. FACT publishes the government’s secret block lists with detailed analyses and has mobilized a street demonstration at the country’s premier computer venue described as “nonviolent civil disobedience”. In a demonstration held on June 9, 2007, at Pantip Plaza, FACT activists distributed “a gift of freedom” to Thai Internet users, ”T-shirts! buttons! stickers! and…thousands of copies of a free CD-ROM, “Beat the Censors–Unblock ICT!”

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(Photo Credit – sivanelle: Anti-censorship protestors gathered outside Pantip Plaza, a popular IT mall. June 9th, 2007 )

The “Beat the Censors–Unblock ICT!” CD “features 41 software applications to circumvent Website-blocking by Thai censors, anonymous proxy servers and MICT’s secret blocklists, in both English & Thai. Many international websites and NGO’s are offering to host the CD on their servers for download. FACT activists have also made “Beat the Censors” available on BitTorrent peer-to-peer networks with cross-platform versions (Windows, Linux and Macintosh).

FACT likes to call the CD its first “weapon of mass instruction”. “In fact, the disk is applicable for use in any censored country. Only the Thai-specific information needs to be deleted and the English needs to be translated into a local language. Unblock the world!” said Ajarn CJ in our email exchange.

I spoke with CJ Hinke, FACT founder and coordinator, about the FACT campaign, the filtering situation in Thailand and its implications and consequences as a result of the new cybercrime law:

Sami: On Bangkok Pundit I learned that number of Thai ISPs have blocked the entire blogspot.com subdomain. Can you tell me more about this new development?

CJ Hinke: Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT) activists are quite certain the entire domain was blocked due to a single blog critical of Thailand’s military coup, Saturday Voice. Blogger.com seems to be accessible using True ISP but not TOT Public Company Limited. Blogs are not so easy to block separately and the Thai government has shown no sense of discretion. If a site provides public spaces for individuals to post websites and some of those sites turn out to be pornographic, the entire domain gets blocked.

They have not yet blocked WordPress, where FACT is located, although we’ve been getting clear warning signals. They are especially upset that FACT posts their secret blocklists along with access to circumvention software and anonymous proxies

However, FACT is making sure the whole world is watching.

Sami: Can you provide us with a brief overview of the Freedom Against Censorship Thailand campaign? Is the site of the campaign blocked? And what about the Thai blogsphere, are the Thai bloggers highly politicized? Are they using blogs to contest the military government?

CJ Hinke: FACT was formed in November 2006 as a campaign to petition the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand against Internet censorship. The NHRC has not yet handed down its ruling but this will have no force in law; it is merely a recommendation.

FACT has also petitioned the Official Information Commission to attempt some transparency and accountability in government.

The censorship climate has deteriorated greatly since Sept 19’s coup. Internet censorship has risen 500%, up now to more than 45,000 websites blocked by several government agencies. The previous government had plans to block 800,000 websites and this number is surfacing again here.

Yes, Thai bloggers are very political, focusing, exposing and fighting many different aspects of Thai politics.

Sami: Can you tell us more about the consequences for freedom of expression of the new ‘Internet’ law and the filtering situation in the country? It seems that the bill will outlaw any attempt to get around government censorship to access blocked websites deemed amoral or offending the country’s monarchy. How can you describe that and what are the reactions of the Thai blogsphere in particular and the Internet users in general vis-à-vis the new Law?

CJ Hinke: The new cybercrime law, formally the Computer-Related Crimes Act, was proposed by the “Official Censor of the Military Coup” before the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly. Its original draft included the death penalty and life imprisonment for some computer crimes.

The bill sat in committee for five months composed of senior police, old judges and long-term bureaucrats, mostly digital dinosaurs. (It is typical in the Thai government for officials and employees to not even do email.) There were scant few open-minded and forward-looking members, but the law made some progress in revision–only 20 years maximum.

Internet censorship is not legal in Thailand and is specifically unconstitutional. Thailand’s principal law drafters and interpreters, the Council of State, decreed ‘net censorship illegal as did the Administrative Court in the ruling against the blocking of Midnight University.

Government has been waiting for the right climate for this law since 1997, when I first opposed censorship here. Curiously, however, the new law made no mention or attempt at censorship. Most of us were considerably relieved by this. However, some of the law’s provisions are being interpreted in order to criminalize a computer user for simply viewing a Web page with unspecified questionable content, even if it has not been blocked. It further criminalizes ISPs by making them responsible for any such content transiting their servers, however briefly. Turning ISPs into cybercops is a big incentive for them to censor indiscriminately, just in case. Furthermore, all IP log data must be retained by ISPs for at least 90 days; government now knows where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing. Concealing one’s IP address is also now illegal as is access to anonymous proxies. In addition, it appears that circumvention software is now in the same class of “illegal instructions” as worms and viruses.

The very fact that the law was passed by overwhelming assent, 119-1, has given the censors, already out of control with their own power, huge confidence. When Thailand has a Constitution again and when the first ‘cybercrime’ case goes to court, these issues may be better defined.

For an excellent analysis of the situation, look for Article XIX’s recommendations and, in another context, read EPIC’s comments on the Council of Europe’s Convention on Cybercrime; none of these recommendations were considered or adopted.

Sami: Have any bloggers or online writers in your country been jailed for their activities? Are you witnessing a crackdown on cyber activists? Are you collaborating with other cyber activists from neighboring countries facing similar situations?

CJ Hinke: No, at present, we have no imprisoned citizen journalists nor an obvious “crackdown”. However, with the rise of voices decrying the violent situation in Thailand’s Muslim South and blaming the coup government for our democratic vacuum, I think it will be only a matter of time before some government bureaucrat with an itchy trigger finger will want to try to flex the muscle of the new law. FACT may well become the prime target because we post the government’s secret blocklists as well as links to circumvention software and anonymous proxies. The government recently changed blocking methods. Until recently, the blocklist was circulated to Thailand’s 54 ISPs and FACT posted it regularly. Government switched to blocking directly at Thailand’s four ‘net gateways and… FACT still publishes the blocklist!

FACT is hoping to make use of circumvention software and anonymous proxies so common throughout every strata of Thai computer life that it will be difficult to call it civil disobedience. Nevertheless, such criminal activity can get one two-four years in prison.

FACT is largely alone out here, though we have sought the vocal support of many major international human rights, civil liberties and good governance organizations, largely without success. We currently have more than 600 signers and a core group of activist coordinators, spokespersons, and tech team. Living under martial law and emergency decree with a military government and no Constitution make FACT’s situation challenging.

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