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Facebook group critical of monarchy banned ‘to protect Thai cyber sovereignty’, says Thai Digital Minister

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A Facebook group critical of the Thai monarchy, with more than a million members, was banned to “protect Thai cyber sovereignty”, and not for political reasons, the country’s Minister of Digital Economy and Society (MDES) Buddhipongse Punnakanta said on Wednesday, Reuters reported. He further said that it was unlikely that Facebook would pursue legal action against the Thai government for the blocking order since the company blocked everything that the government had flagged “this time”. However, in response to MediaNama’s queries, a Facebook spokesperson maintained that the company would go ahead with the legal challenge.

“After careful review, Facebook has determined that we are compelled to restrict access to content which the Thai government has deemed to be illegal. Requests like this are severe, contravene international human rights law, and have a chilling effect on people’s ability to express themselves. We work to protect and defend the rights of all internet users and are preparing to legally challenge this request. Excessive government actions like this also undermine our ability to reliably invest in Thailand, including maintaining an office, safeguarding our employees, and directly supporting businesses that rely on Facebook.” — Facebook spokesperson (emphasis ours)

It is understood that in its legal challenge, Facebook will appeal against MDES’s orders against Facebook Thailand under the Computer Crime Act and ask the court to revoke the orders. It will also ask the court to decide on the legality and constitutionality of the orders. The orders in question relate to the Facebook group “Royalist Marketplace” and other unidentified pieces of content.

The MDES had flagged a million-member group “Royalist Marketplace” for content critical of the monarchy and threatened Facebook with legal action under the country’s Computer Crime Act that has often been used to stifle free speech in the country. Criticising the monarchy is a crime in Thailand. Facebook had complied with the order but said that it would challenge the government’s legal demand.

Since the group was blocked on Monday, its exiled creator, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, has created another group that reportedly already has 700,000 members. The government has also filed a complaint against Chachavalpongpun, who lives in Tokyo, for creating the group.

“If they start a new group or do anything illegal again, we’ll need to act again. We’ll keep doing this no matter how many times it takes,” the MDES minister reportedly said at the press conference. He further warned Facebook’s Thailand office of cybercrime charges if it did not follow the government’s orders. “As Facebook has blocked access to illicit content, this means the company understands and respects Thai laws,” he said, as per Bangkok Post. The company, however, maintains that Facebook Thailand, against which the Thai government has threatened legal action, has no access to or control over content on the platform; it only operates in a marketing capacity.

The MDES is reportedly seeking cooperation from social media platforms to remove another 1,024 “inappropriate” URLs, in line with the court’s orders. Of these, 661 URLs are on Facebook, 289 are on YouTube, and 69 on Twitter and five other platforms. These URLs need be removed within 15 days from August 27. If the platforms do not comply, they would be liable to pay a fine of 200,000 baht, or ₹4.7 lakh, along with a daily non-compliance penalty of 5,000 baht (~₹11,000). The ministry is reportedly looking at complaints against another 700 URLs.

In the last few weeks, pro-democracy rallies have become commonplace in Thailand, some of which have seen 10,000 to 20,000 protestors. The daily student-led rallies are calling for reforms to the monarchy, ouster of the Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a new constitution and fresh election. Chan-o-cha had seized power during the 2014 coup.

Thai govt had threatened Facebook with ban in 2017

Thailand criminalises lèse majesté, that is, insulting the monarch and punishes it with a jail term between three and 15 years. In December 2015, a Thai man was arrested for posting images of the favourite dog of the now deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej in a “mocking way”.

In 2017, the Thai government had threatened to ban Facebook for not blocking pages critical of the monarchy, but it had later backed off since court orders were not delivered to Facebook in time.

Facebook blocked access to 1,461 pieces of content at Thai govt’s orders in 2019

Facebook’s transparency report reveals that the platform had blocked 1,459 posts and 2 pages/groups in response to demands from MDS under lèse majesté law and Section 14(3) of the Computer Crime Act that bans content against national security. In 2018, it blocked access to 869 pieces of content, all under the lèse majesté law. Since Facebook started giving this information for Thailand in January 2014, content has most often been removed for being critical of the monarchy.

In 2019, Facebook received 128 requests for data on 149 accounts and the company complied with 70% of them.

***Update (August 28, 2020 3:02 pm): Updated with response from Facebook, details about the legal challenge and Facebook Thailand’s operations. Originally published on August 27, 2020 at 2:40 pm.

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