By Jon Dent (Guest Contributor)
The trial of Ms. Chiranuch Premchaiporn – known to her friends simply as ‘Jiew’- the executive director of the independent news website Prachatai.com began on Friday, and is slated to last until February 17. Jiew stands trial for allegedly violating Art. 14 and 15 of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act (CCA) for “intentionally supporting or consenting for crimes linked to the use of computers”. The charges against her arise from ten Lese Majeste comments made on Prachatai’s (now closed) web-message board. Despite cooperating with authorities in removing the comments posted on Prachatai by over enthusiastic readers, Jiew faces up to 20 years in prison.
Day one of the trial started with the prosecution’s testimony of Mr. Aree Jivorarak, Thailand’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology’s (MICT) IT Regulation Bureau chief. Among his other duties, Mr. Jivorarak is one of the key officials tasked with censoring Thailand’s Internet. In addition to the three young and technically savvy presiding judges sat an audience of roughly 40 concerned Thai netizens, observers from foreign embassies, NGOs, and journalists.
Anticipating Thailand’s online gate-keeper to lay out the rules, I thought I would finally learn what is allowed and what isn’t in Thailand’s cyberspace. I was in for a disappointment.
Jiew’s defense team began their cross examination with a lively discussion about blocking individual IP addresses or specific user names from accessing particular websites. While Mr. Jivorarak argued that such capabilities exist and can be easily installed to block known online deviants, he seemed to miss some key concepts of the web.
First, IP addresses register devices not individuals. Changing your IP address requires nothing more than changing computer stations. By moving from a home computer to the café wi-fi down the street, the same individual can repeatedly access a web site from different IP addresses. Changing a user ID is even simpler, since most web sites don’t place limits on user registration. Even if Prachatai had installed a program to block known trouble makers (a requirement that is not obligatory by law), there is no reason to believe it would stop a determined and reasonably capable individual from posting inflammatory comments.
For sake of argument, let us accept Mr. Jivorarak’s premise, that webmasters should (or even can) filter user comments. So where do we start? When asked by the defense team, Mr. Jivorarak could not point to any specific guidelines or regulations explaining to webmasters what exactly constitutes “bad” content that must be removed. He could only mention general regulations banning known social evils (gambling, pornography, narcotics) and Lese Majesty. While the specific guidelines are still being drafted, in practice it is up to the “authorized officer” at the MICT to decide retroactively what stays and what goes. Such decisions are often inconsistent and subject to the personal interpretation of Thai government officials.
So what is a webmaster to do? According to Mr. Jivorarak’s testimony, it would seem that they are expected to know what a censor may find inappropriate at a future date, before the content itself has been posted. Simply put, they are expected to peer into the hearts and minds of censors through space and time to decide what goes online. Not a minor achievement of precognition and quite a burdensome requirement for anyone operating a web site.
To get a better idea of the permissible limits of online free speech, the defense tested the boundaries set by the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology. They showed Mr. Jivorarak several user comments from Prachatai’s web-board, and asked him to pick out the one forbidden comment that his team included in the charges against Jiew. The IT Regulation Bureau chief couldn’t find the single comment: He chose three.
Jon Dent is an independent researcher, human rights activist and Jedi Knight living in Thailand.