Asian Correspondent » Lisa Gardner Asian Correspondent Fri, 03 Jul 2015 10:16:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Amnesty reports human rights abuses, repression in Thailand Thu, 11 Sep 2014 07:01:21 +0000

A protester is detained by Thai soldiers during an anti-coup demonstration in Bangkok, Thailand in May. Pic: AP.

Human rights group Amnesty International has marked 100 days of martial law in Thailand with the release of a report evidencing cases of of alleged torture and ill-treatment, enforced disappearances as well as a host of extensive human rights violations.

In its ‘Attitude Adjustment’ report, the UK-based organisation outlined its concerns that “instead of lifting restrictions, authorities are maintaining and entrenching disproportionate restrictions on the peaceful and legitimate exercise of human rights in Thailand”.

Since martial law began, over 600 people have been ordered to report to the junta, arrested and/or arbitrarily detained – among them, 141 academics, writers, journalists and political activists, the report noted.

Yet due to the high number of informal reports, Amnesty noted, the actual number of those ordered to report is thought to be significantly higher.

(MORE: Red shirt activist accuses Thai military of ‘torture’ during detainment)

In its report, Amnesty included evidence of alleged torture which took place during interrogation. These reports included beatings, death threats, mock executions and attempted asphyxiation. Others reported being blindfolded, with hands and feet tied – in the case of one detainee, for almost a week.

Arbitrary detention
“(The NCPO) has implemented existing laws, Martial Law and new vaguely-worded orders to stop ‘political activities’ and ‘adjust attitudes’ of would-be dissenters,” the report stated. “Many of these laws and orders… violate human rights.”

Since May, the NCPO had extended “wide-ranging”measures to restrict freedom of expression, censoring hundreds of websites, closing radio stations, banning gatherings of more than five people and threatening those with arrest who post information deemed critical of the junta.

Amnesty issued over 30 recommendations to Thai authorities, calling upon the junta to conduct independent investigations into alleged cases of torture and ill-treatment, while safeguarding human rights in line with its international obligations.

In a written response, the junta stated that “the root causes of the imposition of martial law were omitted,” fearing the report had “failed to reflect the sentiment of the majority of the Thai people who now feel much safer.”

“There has been steady progress,” the junta stated. “Thailand needs this time and space for consolidation as we push forward in our effort to build a genuine and sustainable democracy.”

Yet Amnesty concluded that “the cumulative effect of these broad restrictions and the threat of detention and persecution for peaceful expression are engendering a climate of fear and a culture of enforced silence.”

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Mongolian blogger accused of defaming minister on Twitter freed on appeal Tue, 09 Sep 2014 03:42:59 +0000

A Mongolian man sentenced to three months imprisonment last month for defaming a high-profile politician on Twitter was freed on appeal Tuesday morning.

The case had been the first to see a social media user convicted under the country’s controversial criminal defamation and libel laws.

A group of supporters gathered in Mongolia's capital after Ts. Bat's conviction on defamation charges last month. Image via @ideruugan on Twitter.

Ts. Bat (@batengineer) an engineer and blogger, was found guilty of defaming the Minister for Roads and Transport A. Gansukh via a series of tweets posted last October in relation to the aviation sector.

Earlier today the Ulan Bator Appeals Court found that further investigation was necessary as to assess the content of Bat’s allegations against the Minister.

Minister Gansukh’s office had yet to respond to requests for comment on the court’s decision.

“We are very relieved that the court will consider whether what Bat wrote in his tweets was true or not,” his sister, Minister of Culture Ts. Oyungerel, said following the verdict.

The Minister said she intends to push ahead with plans to draft whistleblower protection laws in Mongolia.

“We believe that the new investigation will demonstrate that Bat is in fact a whistleblower, and that Mongolians who speak up deserve protection,” she said.

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Mongolian blogger imprisoned for tweets criticising transport minister Fri, 22 Aug 2014 07:38:04 +0000

A group of supporters gathered in Mongolia's capital after Ts. Bat was sentenced to three months in prison Tuesday. Image via @ideruugan on Twitter.

A Mongolian man was sentenced to three months in prison on Tuesday for defaming a high-profile politician on social media.

Ts. Bat (@batengineer), an engineer and blogger, was found guilty on Tuesday of defaming the Minister for Roads and Transport A. Gansukh via a series of tweets posted last October in relation to the aviation sector.

The case is the first to see a social media user convicted under the country’s controversial criminal defamation and libel laws.

In response to the verdict, local press freedom groups have re-issued concerns over a perceived recent increase “in threats, harassment and pressure from authorities” to those expressing their views online.

Khashkhuu Naranjargal, executive director of local press freedom group Globe International briefly described the ruling as “a brutal action… (one) completely against freedom of expression and democratic values.”

The case sparked outrage on Twitter, with “#FreeBat” quickly gaining traction online. A small group of tweeters protested in the main square of the capital following the verdict.

The man’s sister, Minister of Culture Ts. Oyungerel, has since described her brother as a “whistleblower” whose imprisonment is “political” in nature.

“My brother is a professional engineer who had a 20-year long career in Mongolian aviation. That’s why he knows what’s happening in Mongolian aviation and if he doesn’t like something, he will express it,” the Minister explained.

Via Twitter, Ts. Bat posted just prior to Tuesday’s verdict that “the truth always wins.”

Minister Gansukh’s office has yet to respond to requests for comment on the ruling.

“(This case) sets a very bad precedent against those who express discontent,” his sister later explained. “Mongolia is a freedom-fighting country… This is very bad news for Mongolian citizens, for Mongolia’s future, and for Mongolian democracy.”

Ts. Bat is expected to launch an appeal against the verdict in coming days.

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Thai man on trial for selling ABC footage critical of royal family Tue, 17 Jul 2012 03:16:24 +0000

Updated (23/06/12 : 07:52 GWT) Akachai’s case deferred to November

Journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk writes: “Ekachai Hongkangwan’s lese majeste trial has been deferred to mid-November after judges advised the defendant to change his plea by saying that he had no intention to defame the monarchy but that he merely wanted to share information.”

Akachai Hongkanwan, the Thai man yet facing a possible 15 year sentence for dissemination of an ABC Australia documentary and series of Wikileaks cables, released the following to Pravit earlier last week. ABC Australia Legal representatives had written to Akachai to affirm that while the news outlet were “sorry to hear of the issues that you face:

Unfortunately the ABC is not in a position to assist. We produced a program outside your country aimed at an Australian audience. We did not in any way encouraged people to take the type of action that you say you took. In fact, that action breached the ABC’s copyright in the program. In these circumstances the ABC will not be providing any statements. There should be no further need to contact the ABC. In particular, you should not contact any of our staff in Thailand as they have had nothing to do with the program. (August 15 2011)

Coverage of the trial comes courtesy of Nation journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk, and can be found hereBangkok Pundit lends his analysis here.
As it progresses, coverage of the case will continue here at Asian Correspondent.
The trial of a Thai man accused of selling video CDs of an Australian television news segment about Thailand’s monarchy is set to begin today in Bangkok.

Akachai Hongkangwan, a 36-year-old local vendor, faces a possible 15 years in prison under Thailand’s draconian lese-majeste law, a law which criminalises scrutiny or criticism o the revered royal family, and Article 54 (‘Film and Video Act’)*.

Akachai is accused of distributing VCD copies of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) news segment produced by the network’s Foreign Correspondent program, at a red-shirt rally in March 2011.

The ABC segment, ‘Long Live the King’, was aired in Australia in April 2010. It featured a number of high-profile lese-majeste cases, including those of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, charged as moderator of comments made on a local news website; the brother of lese-majeste prisoner Darinee ‘Da Torpedo’ Charnchoensilpakul, currently serving an extended jail term, and Chotisak Onsung, who was charged with lese-majeste in 2008 for not standing during the screening of the royal anthem prior to a movie screening.

Most controversially, the ABC segment featured footage of the Thai Crown Prince Vijiralongkorn, heir to the throne, that was frowned upon by the Thai authorities.

In the introduction to the program, ABC presenter Mark Corcoran would pertinently assess the difficulties that media face in covering political issues in-country. He would note:

How do you tell the story of Thailand’s royal family when any criticism of the royals can bring (about) a hefty jail sentence in that country?… With Thailand at the crossroads, we’ve resolved that it’s time for a detailed examination of the laws that gag analysis of the laws, and their pivotal role in Thai politics.

With the ABC’s Bangkok bureau evacuated prior to the screening, featured journalist Eric Campbell explained that “it’s basically a story that can only be done by people who don’t live and work in Thailand.” For him, “the downside is unfortunately I can never go back”.

Thailand’s Ambassador to Australia would later complain to ABC executives “that an organization of the ABC’s stature has lowered its own standard by airing the said documentary, which is presented in a manner no different from tabloid journalism.”

‘Local’ media in an online world

Made available on the ABC website with international ‘blocks’ in place, it is clear that the segment had been intended only for viewing by Australian audiences. Yet the segment would be quickly uploaded to the internet, where Thai censors hastily sought to ban digital access (the video, while regularly uploaded to YouTube before being removed under copyright restrictions, cannot be viewed in Thailand). Yet it is clear that international ‘blocks’ and local efforts to censor aside, once online such material does tend to proliferate.

It is no secret on the streets of Bangkok that material which scrutinizes the Thai royal family are broadly distributed among those ‘in the know’. (This journalist was once accosted by a local motorcycle driver who’d downloaded the ABC segment to his iPhone).

Akachai and the ABC

Sources close to Akachai say that, in the weeks following his arrest, he approached ABC staff in Bangkok. The local vendor “thought to advise them of what had happened, and that he was out on bail. In effect, he was told: ‘go away: consider yourself lucky that we don’t sue you for IP violation.'”

In July last year, staff who’d assisted the crew in Bangkok wrote to program producers. Concerned that Akachai’s case would go unnoticed, they asked that the ABC consider making a public statement. “That the producers was (sic) not intended to ‘insult’ or ‘disdain’ the institution (of the monarchy),” they wrote, “but to fairly criticize and present fair views as journalists.” They received no reply. (See update).

“It boils down to, well, ‘why are we journalists?'” says Hinke, a Canadian who himself has lived in Thailand for over 20 years. “Why are we reporting on news?  We’re journalists because we want to expose that which wouldn’t otherwise be exposed. Why is the ABC producing such shows if they don’t care if people watch it or not, in the places where people are the most concerned?”

Sources close to Akachai say he remains hopeful that the ABC will make a public statement condemning the charges brought against him.

“If they won’t make a statement, at the very least, they should attend the trial,” says a source. “It’s too dangerous for people to speak out in his defense,” says another. “But not for the ABC – they’re already persona non grata.

In the digital age, questions of distribution are key. Can journalists expect that what they produce for a single, localized audience, remain that way? Are there any such obligations that our information-gathering extends to those prosecuted?

The case will be heard throughout the week, and a verdict expected soon thereafter.


*At time of publication, this article first referred to Akachai being charged under Thailand’s lese-majeste and Computer Crimes laws. This is in fact, incorrect: he is charged under both Article 112 (lese-majeste) and Article 54 (Film and Video Act). 

Lisa Gardner is an Australian freelance journalist based in Bangkok. Follow her on Twitter @leesebkk

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UN Council declares Internet freedom a human right Mon, 09 Jul 2012 05:35:30 +0000

On Thursday, July 5, the UN Human Rights Council passed a landmark resolution that recognizes the right to freedom of expression online, and calls upon states to promote Internet access as fundamental to the exercise of civic rights.

UN headquarters

UN headquarters Pic: AP

“The same rights that people have offline must also be protected online,” noted the Council, the UN’s main human rights body, as civic and political rights are “applicable regardless of frontiers.” Frontiers that were once conceived as borders between countries are now understood as barriers to access – namely, to that global sphere of knowledge commonly known as the Internet.

DEBATE & DISSENT: The Internet, a ‘Human Right’?

As the Council met in Geneva, Swedish Ambassador Jan Knutsson sought to persuade states to back the bill, reiterating the Internet’s capacity for positive social and cultural development.

“It is clear that the Internet and information technologies have been key in changing people’s lives – making them less vulnerable, and reducing poverty,” he argued – the implications of which are egalitarian, and democratic. “The openness of the Internet levels the playing field between regions and continents.”

And yet, how might more censorious states support any such proposal which gives greater impetus to free expression online? China, Russia, and Cuba in particular raised concerns that unfettered rights online would do little to curb cyber crime and other “negative” developments.

Chinese Ambassador Xia Jingge said that he’d hoped “the sponsors (would) consider the differences in views… (regarding) freedom of speech, and control of the Internet, amongst the different countries”, since:

(China) believes that the free flow of information on the Internet, and the safe flow of information on the Internet, are mutually dependent. As the Internet develops rapidly, online gambling, pornography, fraud and hacking are increasing its threat to the legal rights of the society and the public, particularly the unhealthy information have a huge negative impact on the growth of minors.

The governments of the world are duty bound to fight against such crime, to guarantee the safe flow of information on the Internet, to guide the public to use the public – to run the Internet – legally. Otherwise, unhealthy and negative information flow will obstruct the development of the Internet.

Yet China, along with more than 80 countries, including 30 members of the council, would sign on to co-sponsor the non-binding resolution.

“It is an important step in determining how to incorporate new electronic frontiers into the established body of international human rights agreements,” noted rights institute Freedom House. “It also firmly establishes the global acceptance of the principle of free expression on the Internet, even if its application has yet to be fully realized.”

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Julian Assange’s mother slams ‘untrustworthy’ Sweden Mon, 09 Jul 2012 04:02:18 +0000
Julian Assange’s precarious legal battle continues. Since lodging his request for political asylum on June 19, the WikiLeaks founder has remained inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London while his application is considered. Susan Benn, of the Julian Assange defense fund, said on June 29 that Assange would not honor a notice served to him by UK police requiring him to turn himself in to authorities. 
Britain Wikileaks Assange

Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sit outside the Ecuadorian Embassy, in London. Pic: AP.

The UK Supreme Court dismissed a bid to reopen Assange’s appeal against extradition to Sweden on June 14. In a press statement, Sweden’s Prosecution Authority advised that “Mr Assange will be surrendered to Sweden within 10 days after the 14th day” (in effect, July 6).

That deadline has come and gone,  yet Mr Assange remains ensconced within the Ecuadorian Embassy. It remains unclear whether his request for political asylum will be granted.

Here we spoke with Christine Assange, Julian’s mother, regarding these recent developments in her son’s case.

Christine Assange

Christine Assange pictured in London in late 2010. Pic: AP.

On Julian’s request for political asylum…

“I spoke to him (while) he was inside the Ecuadorian Embassy. His exact words were: ‘tell them I’m humbled and buoyed by the support worldwide, and I’m in good fighting spirits.’ I listened to his voice, and I have not heard him sound that relaxed for a long time, and I think that’s because he feels safe inside the Ecuadorian Embassy. When he was on the outside, he was always subject to an attack.

“I spoke to people at the Embassy in Australia, and I found them to be very warm, non-bureaucratic people… I think he’s surrounded by warm and caring people, and for the moment, regardless of how this turns out, he’s feeling cared for and safe… I think at this time, to be able to offer him both safety and a warm heart, is very comforting to me as a mother.”

On extradition to Sweden…

“I’m against that, because I wouldn’t trust the Swedish government as far as you can throw them. They’ve given assurances before, and broken them. The Swedish government are not to be trusted, under any circumstances….

“The Swedish prosecutor has shown absolutely no bona fides in this case. The original prosecutor has had no basis for this whatsoever. The Swedish prosecutor has continued to refuse every reasonable legal way to interview Julian, from day one, including even at the Swedish Embassy in London, or Scotland Yard. So the motivations are, that if she has to interview him, then she either has to drop the case, or charge him. If she charges him, she has to give evidence. And she’s got no evidence.

Julian Assange

Julian Assange. Pic: AP.

“You know, Julian’s biggest character flaw? It’s trust… He trusts people. It’s abused, often… You don’t trust someone whose untrustworthy.

“I think what should happen at this point is the Swedish prosecutor should perhaps go to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, and question to Julian there. And then produce her charges and evidence, for everybody to see.”

“I’ve got the reactions of a mother, and I’ve got the reactions of a citizen…

…and they’re quite different. My reactions as a mother is I wish to hell he’d never gotten involved in it. I am very, very frightened for him. I’ve had sleepless nights, and I pull myself together to realize that the biggest weapon I have to fight for him are the facts. Once the people know the facts, they’re immediately supportive…. My jobs are to get the facts out. I have a specific job. I just get down and do it.

“My part as a citizen – I’m very glad to see what Julian has done. It’s been a great service to the world. There’s been people fighting third world corruption, for human rights, environmental degradation and so on – never understanding the actual causes, just the band-aid treatment. But WikiLeaks has provided the actual cause, which is first-world exploitation of the third-world, and of the people of the first-world. The world has come to an understanding of the cause… then you can apply the correct solution. That’s what they’ve shown via the cables…

“I used to believe the media, not everything they said, but almost. I don’t trust them anymore. I believed in Julian, but I did a lot of studying before I came out swinging to support WikiLeaks. I had to be assured that I was backing a right cause. Obviously, you support your son emotionally, and their right to a fair trial anywhere. But when I came to a full understanding about Wikileaks when I read the cables… I have no faith anymore in the governments to do the right thing by Julian. But as a citizen, I am so glad for what WikiLeaks has done.”

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The chilling effect: Malaysian move to fight cyber-crime tramples rights of netizens Fri, 29 Jun 2012 05:19:35 +0000

Recent changes to Section 114a of Malaysia’s Evidence Act were introduced, according to the government, to fight cyber-crime. However, critics say the amendments to the law are a fear tactic to silence Malaysia’s netizens and put an end to free political discourse online. We spoke to one of Malaysia’s top media freedom activists to find out more…

Amendments to Malaysian law have rendered the country’s netizens criminally liable for any acts committed under their online  identities. The changes, which also make intermediaries or publishers of material liable, remove the assumption of innocence and threaten political rights, say critics.

The Malaysian government argue that amendments to the country’s Evidence Act are necessary in order to bring about an end to cyber crime in the country.

Under Section 114a of the Act, “any person whose name, photograph or pseudonym appears as producer, owner, host, administrator, editor or sub-editor, or who in any manner facilitates to publish or re-publish the publication is presumed to have published or re-published the contents of the publication unless the contrary is proved.”

However, many fear that a law designed to curb cyber crimes such as fraud and scams will instead lead to a “tremendous chilling effect,” aimed at dampening online political debate in the country. Here, we speak with Jac Sm Kee, co-director of the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) in Malaysia, to discuss the amendments.

Q: What kind of implications does this law hold for internet users in Malaysia? 

The impact of this Amendment is that it will create a tremendous chilling effect on internet users. Whether (it be) ordinary internet users, companies – not just internet service providers and online companies – but also shopkeepers who provide free WiFi in their establishments as part of their business model. Now they are suddenly liable for whatever content passes through them… any kind of content that is deemed seditious or defamatory.

Q: How does the law act to reverse the presumption of innocence?

In Section 114a of the amended law, it says if it has your name, your face, then it is assumed to be you. So if this law is enforced, nobody is going to put anything up in their name, or use their real picture, because they’ll be too afraid to be held liable…

It actually protects hackers. It assumes that if someone hacks into your account, says something under your name, then it’s you – and it’s up to you to prove that it’s not’ you’.

Meanwhile, the majority of Malaysian users are not very tech-savvy. We don’t really know how we’re supposed to prove that we really didn’t do it, when ‘you’, as the government, is telling me that you’re finding it really difficult to prove ‘who-is- who’ in the first place… The police would probably seize your computer, which would make it even more difficult.

If this law is enforced, hypothetically speaking, I wouldn’t even need to hack your account. All I would have to do is create an account in your name and use your photograph – and it is assumed to be you. It is that ridiculously wide-reaching. It is that ridiculously open to abuse. Yes, it affects everyone online – but it could also affect those who don’t even go online, at all…

So now we all exist in a state of presumed illegality, presumed criminality – the onus is now on everybody to prove their own innocence. It will really impact negatively on whether you decide you will go online…  in the first place.

Malaysian media quote de facto law minister Nazri Abdul Aziz as stating:

under the amended Act, we shift the burden to the owner of the laptop or account so that we can get to the source [of the slanderous or seditious comments because] we don’t want [anonymous or pseudonymous] people to slander or threaten others.

In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Sharil Tarmizi of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission said:

In terms of the timing… I would say that, to me, it’s happenstance. But we’ve been facing difficulties in bringing people to justice – bringing people to book. Simply because a guy says ‘it wasn’t me’ – a flat denial.

Yet critics such as Ms. Kee would describe these arguments as “ostentatious”, given that:

In terms of the types of computer crimes we have in this country… Most are for economic reasons. Scams, fraud, and so on. Cyber crime, in essence, involves someone hacking into your account, using your devices without permission, or using your service network without your authorization…

The elections in 2008… saw that for the first time the ruling coalition government did not bring in such a large majority as they had been. And a large part of this was due to online spaces, because the internet has become this very vibrant, very democratic space, where public debate takes place, and where a lot of discourse, a lot of information is being shared, because the offline media is so controlled. And that’s possibly being seen as a threat that needs to be reined in before this election.

Because of the fear that is cast, because of the presumption of liability, the main impact of the law casts fear into the minds of internet users. Right now, I find the Malaysian netizens to be quite fearless… (because of) the relative openness of the online space. This is yet another step made in order to cast fear into Malaysia’s vociferous online community.

Q: What impact do you expect this law will have on the practice of journalists, and on the practices of businesses, large and small, which undertake some of their business online?

In Malaysia, we have a practice of a culture of journalism online which is very open, very transparent. (Journalists) have no qualms in using their own names in order to publish something and to talk about particularly difficult issues. If this law were to take effect… It could encourage more journalists to be anonymous, because it comes more worrisome to be personally identifiable on a particular site or in a particular space.

In order for this to be even enforced or operationalized, it’ll take a lot of money. All (online) sites will have to change, they’ll have to ensure their platforms can identify IP addresses, etc. In that way, the law increases surveillance, and narrows expression.

The private sector will be very affected. Google has a particular stake in this issue, since they own so much of the interface of how we use the internet in Malaysia. This law will hold anyone who facilitates the publishing of content liable. It means that if you create something on ‘blogspot’, for example, then not only you as the creator of the page will get into trouble, those who comment will get into trouble, and the person who facilitates your being able to get a blog – i.e. Google – will get into trouble as well. The private sector therefore has a particular stake in ensuring that intermediary liability does not happen.

Q: What will this mean for online social media marketing as we know it, which is built on interactivity – on the communicable space?

If you have a Facebook page and you allow interactions, then you could be held liable. It will really change the characteristics of what you expect the internet to be, and the value that it brings: to individuals, to businesses, and to good governance.

Internet start-ups and SMEs drive the economy of the nation. When the government clamps down on the whole concept of what’s possible, it clamps down on innovation, new ideas, the ability to think outside the box and facilitate a growing market. On one hand, (the government) spent millions of dollars trying to invest in internet infrastructure. On the other, they’re limiting what can be produced. There’s now so many things that people will be afraid to do.

Q: Are there reasons to believe that the Malaysian government may not have a complete understanding of the means by which the internet functions?

In Thailand, for example, we’ve seen ISPs come forward to teach classes to Ministry of Information (MICT) officials, who they believe show a lack of understanding in this area. That, hypothetically speaking, these officials may not appreciate that, in the online sphere, names are no guarantee of identity…

The question of how well-versed the Malaysian Government are in relation to the internet is one that’s been raised in the past. It’s been raised by industry who’ve suggested, ‘if you really knew how the internet worked, you wouldn’t pass a law likemthis.’ I always caution about this.

It is safe to assume that the Malaysian Government is technically, very sophisticated. We are one of the first countries in the world to invest heavily in building ICT infrastructure… in technical exchange, in knowledge-sharing, in getting private sector into the country, in bilateral agreements with different countries around cyber crime enforcement, and the data-sharing that needs to happen…. We hold leadership positions in many institutions in terms of internet regulation and global governance. So not only do we have the infrastructure, the government is well-placed within international institutions and bodies around internet governance issues.

Therefore it’s a dangerous mistake to assume the government doesn’t understand how the internet works, and is passing laws due to a failure of understanding. In fact, I think you really need to understand how the internet works in order to pass a law that seems not to make sense, but has a very real impact.

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