In 2009, the police raided Prachatai, a popular online news websit and arrested the online editor Chiranuch Premchaiporn. Chiranuch was charged under the Computer Crimes Act as she did not delete comments posted by readers that were alleged to constitute lese majeste. More posts on her arrest and the aftermath herehere and here.  Then, in 2010, Chiranuch was arrested again… after attending a conference about  online freedom of expression – see post by BP here and by Saksith here. Chiranuch’s trial started  in February 2011 – see a post at Siam Voices about it here – but after a few days of hearings, the rest of the trial was delayed until September. BP blogged about the trial here. Chiranuch was facing up to 20 years in jail and the verdict was handed down today.

AP:

A Thai court sentenced a local webmaster Wednesday to an eight-month suspended sentence for failing to act quickly enough to remove Internet posts deemed insulting to the country’s royalty in a case widely seen as a test of freedom of expression in this Southeast Asian nation.

The ruling showed leniency toward Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who faced up to 20 years in prison for 10 comments posted on her Prachatai news website, but it still sends the message that Internet content in Thailand must be self-censored.

Chiranuch was the first to be prosecuted under Thailand’s computer-crime laws, which were enacted in 2007 under an interim, unelected government that came to power after a coup a year earlier. The laws address hacking and other online offenses, but also bar the circulation of material deemed detrimental to national security, which includes defaming the monarchy.

Her case, which drew international attention, was inextricably linked to Thailand’s fractious politics of recent years, as the country’s traditional ruling class – allying big business, the military and royalists – has been desperately fighting to retain reverence for the monarchy and their influence over politics.

Judge Kampol Rungrat said Wednesday that his guilty verdict was based on one particular post that was left on the Prachatai site for 20 days, which was deemed too long.

Chiranuch “did not perform her duty in a timely manner” and “allowed the inappropriate posting to be on the website for too long,” the judge said.

Chiranuch was initially given a one-year suspended sentence that was immediately reduced to eight months. She also was fined 20,000 baht ($625), which she quickly paid with help from supporters and colleagues who handed her cash.

“I expected to be acquitted, but I found the judge’s verdict logical and reasonable,” a smiling Chiranuch told reporters. “However, I still think the verdict will have an impact on self-censorship.”

BP: The case involved intermediary liability which is Chiranuch did not post comments herself, but as the web editor/webmaster she was liable for the comments made. In the end, the court only ruled against Chiranuch on one of the comments and this allowed them to find her guilty, but only give her a suspended sentence. To be honest, BP was not surprised.

As tweeted earlier this morning:

1. Time for prediction. @jiew will not get a jail sentence today. AFAIK, evidence presented at trial that she had deleted comments in past

2. that would be deemed LM without prompting & there was no specific warning/notice given to Jiew or Prachatai abt comments. This won’t mean

3. that intermediary liability is no longer an issue; just facts of this case (+ also high profile nature) means J has not broken the law

4. That is not 100% confident prediction; just think it is much more likely than a custodial sentence.

BP: Essentially, Chiranuch’s case was high profile enough that to send her to jail would have looked bad. To find her guilty and give her a suspended sentence takes the pressure off. In reality though, intermediary liability is still an issue for the future. The court said that deleting a comment within 10 days means you are not guilty, but 20 days and you are. This is better than a shorter time period, but this is not 10 days from the time you are aware of the comments, it is within 10 days of the comments being made. Hence, people will need to be vigilant in moderating comments.

Having said that this ruling didn’t really change much. It just confirmed that BP had through previously. Below are some excerpts from a post in September 2011:

 As BP noted in a post in a September 2007, BP was being careful in moderating comments specifically for this reason. Having said that, moderating comments would mean Section 14 would likely apply whereas the case against Prachatai was under Section 15 intermediary liability although BP only allows moderated comments specifically because of the risk of Section 15

….

BP: Between lese majeste and the Computer Crimes Act, there is a much greater chance of amending the Computer Crimes Act and the intermediary liability is one of the sections that should be amended. Having said that, BP was thinking about the Chiranuch case and had a perverse thought. That is, if Chiranuch is found not guilty, won’t it be more difficult to amend the law? Supporters of the law may argue ‘is it really unfair given the outcome’?. On the other hand, if Chiranuch is found guilty – even if overturned on appeal – the situation is different. It is not hard to see there being a need to amend the law about intermediary liability, but at the same other amendments can easily be included.

Yes, prosecution of intermediary liability has been fairly selective. For example, why is Prachatai being prosecuted, but not Facebook or Google (who own YouTube) for comments made on the sites? It is hard to see why Prachatai is being prosecuted and the others are not.*  How would a large internet company respond?

Thailand is a very small market. What if Facebook decided “screw going to jail in case a flight of one of our executives transits Bangkok, let’s just block all Thai IP address”. Yes, you can get around such blocks, but let’s be honest the vast majority of users don’t know how to – many proxy sites are also blocked. Can you imagine the impetus to change the law then? Yes, YouTube was blocked for a while in 2007 and it took a while for something to happen, but the sheer number of people who use Facebook makes it a different situation.** Of course, Facebook would be unlikely to suddenly just block Thai IP addresses unannounced. They would likely threaten to do so first, but the threat of a couple of million teen boppers having no Facebook. Can you imagine the havoc that will cause….

BP:  So BP thinks the chance of any reform of the law is unlikely…. Who will be next?

Some more comments later…

btw, see comments by The Next Web here and Saksith here.