Thailand’s new Digital Economy and Society Minister, Buddhipongse Punnakanta, has instructed owners of cafes and coffee shops which offer free WiFi that they must store logs of their customers’ browsing activity for 90 days and hand them over to the government’s ‘anti-fake-news center’.
This new center is designed to monitor and investigate online content which violates Section 26 of the Computer Crimes Act, and has been deemed inappropriate or misleading by the government.
Areas of focus are natural disasters, the economy, public health and state policy, and security, each of which has their own committee within the centre.
The announcement was made at a press conference at the Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD) on 8 October, which was called after the arrest of 25 year-old Karn Pongpraphapan for posting “inappropriate content” online.
Buddhipongse, who recently vowed to “purge content hurtful to Thais,” said of the arrest:
“We are taking this seriously and this arrest should serve as an example to others, that they should think carefully because it can have criminal consequences.”
The pro-election activist was charged under “computer crime laws involving national security.” He has since been granted bail by the Criminal Court, subject to not posting similar comments, but faces up to five years in prison if found guilty.
In their announcement, the police appeared to link the arrest to the #royalmotorcade controversy, which has been trending in Thailand over the past week.
Siriwat Deepor, the deputy chief of the Technology Crime Suppression Division said:
“Over the last week, bad actors have started inappropriate hashtags on social media, resulting in the arrested person posting inappropriate content on Facebook which stirred hatred.”
#royalmotorcade went viral on Tuesday 1 October when a motorcade escorting an unknown member of the Thai royal family caused a rush-hour traffic jam near the Victory Monument in Bangkok.
In addition to heavy congestion, there are reports of ambulances being forced to stop and turn off their emergency lights to allow the motorcade to pass.
Despite this, Karn’s lawyer Winyat Chatmontree maintains that “The comments posted on his Facebook did not mention Thailand’s monarchy nor the #royalmotorcade hashtag at all.”
According to Winyat the charge came from an effort to misrepresent Karn’s comments as related to the trending hashtag, which topped Thailand’s twitter trending page on Wednesday 2 October, with 250,000 tweets.
While the government statement was not a direct policy announcement – and was phrased as a reminder to shop owners who may not know their legal obligations – it demonstrates an attempt to tighten up gaps in surveillance.
Buddhipongse clarified that “Some people are likely to access the internet via WiFi in coffee shops to commit offences because they think that no log file is collected.”
If cafes and coffee shops comply, any traffic carried out through their WiFi network will be subject to direct government surveillance. However, since VPNs are legal in Thailand, an appropriate VPN would be able to overcome these measures.