Google releases Transparency Report: Thailand an unknown quantityBy Saksith Saiyasombut & Siam Voices Jun 19, 2012 1:06AM UTC
By Lisa Gardner
The previous page is sending you to http://www.mict.go.th/. If you do not want to visit that page, you can return to the previous page.
So reads Google’s message of compliance with government requests that certain web pages in Thailand be blocked. Google bucked international trends in 2011 by blocking access to hundreds of web pages at the behest of the Thai Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology (MICT).
Earlier today Google released its 2012 Transparency report, which discloses requests the company receives, both from governments and owners of copyright, that certain online material be blocked.
The report states that in 2011, Google received a number of requests from MICT that some 417 “pieces of content”, including YouTube videos, be removed, “because they were mocking or criticizing the king in violation of Thai lèse-majesté laws”.
Of these, Google would restrict complete access to 307 of these “items” – in 110 other cases, “partially” removing access – thereby complying, at least to some degree, with each of MICT’s censorious requests – a 100% strike rate.
While Google “generally rely on courts to decide if a statement is defamatory according to local law,” in Thailand no such court orders were issued.
TRANSPARENCY AND THE INTERNET: Google and Governments
In 2011, Google would receive more than 1,000 such requests from governments and copyright owners across the globe, complying fully or partially with just over half (54%) of them. While the company would not provide exact reasons for the censoring of particular sites, they would briefly outline some of the (at times, quite curious) preoccupations of government censors:
We received a request from the Passport Canada office to remove a YouTube video of a Canadian citizen urinating on his passport and flushing it down the toilet. We did not comply with this request…
We received a request from the Government of Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology to remove six YouTube videos that satirized the Pakistan Army and senior politicians. We did not comply with this request.
Meanwhile, in Thailand, the implications are far more sobering. As the Wall Street Journal reports:
In some places, Google complies with laws that would be unthinkable in the U.S. and other countries with free-speech protections. One example is in Thailand, where Google removes YouTube videos that insult the monarchy, a crime under Thai law. Google in the second half restricted or partially restricted all 149 YouTube videos identified by Thai authorities as insulting to the monarchy.
Ms. Chou said Google must comply to continue doing business. “We operate locally there,” she said. “In most of these cases, we have offices in these countries, we have employees in these countries, so we want to be able to respect local law there. That said, we try to limit the amount of censorship that is happening at all times.”
She said Google treats government content-removal requests on a case-by-case basis but uses four broad criteria as guidance. Those include whether a request is sufficiently narrow and whether it cites an applicable local law.
On Google’s own blogsite, Ms. Chou would also note:
…Spanish regulators asked us to remove 270 search results that linked to blogs and articles in newspapers referencing individuals and public figures, including mayors and public prosecutors. In Poland, we received a request from a public institution to remove links to a site that criticized it. We didn’t comply with either of these requests…
We realize that the numbers we share can only provide a small window into what’s happening on the Web at large. But we do hope that by being transparent about these government requests, we can continue to contribute to the public debate about how government behaviors are shaping our Web.
LESE MAJESTE: The unknown quantity
The report illuminates a perilous position for foreign investors in Thailand, particularly for online entities, given threats that they themselves could be held liable – as is possible, under both the lese-majeste and subsequent computer crimes laws – for any such “illegal” statements posted on their sites. The recent criminal sentencing of online intermediary Chiranuch Premchaiporn demonstrated in no unclear terms that local authorities intend to prosecute any such individuals or entities who host sites privy to material critical of members of the Thai royal family.
Yet the report raises serious concerns as to the role of large entities in assisting governments to censor views posted on the internet. In 2011, Google chose to comply with each request made Thai government censors.
Google has yet to release any statement which explains which material MICT sought to block access to; nor how the company came to decide which it would completely, or in some cases partially, block from public view. Where Google draws the line, between potentially defamatory material and hate speech, or fair discussion and critique of the Thai monarchy, remains unclear.
While today’s release sees a transparency of sorts, we are no closer to knowing just what constitutes Google’s support for free expression in the Kingdom. At best, Google has restricted defamatory material, supporting free expression as a fundamental, if not absolute, right. At worst, it has displayed a noxious support for political power, assisting Thai censors in their ongoing battle to restrict discussion and debate of the country’s most powerful.
Transparency aside, a censorious line has been drawn. Here in Thailand, just where that line lies continues to remain unclear.
Lisa Gardner is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. Follow her on Twitter @leesebkk