Junta mulls 'Great Firewall' for Thailand

Critics of the plan fear it will be used to stifle dissent.
PHOTO: Reuters

BANGKOK - Thailand's junta is facing growing opposition over plans to introduce a single Internet gateway for the country to make it easier to monitor the web and block content.

Tens of thousands of people have signed a petition against the proposal, which has been dubbed the "Great Firewall of Thailand" - a play on China's draconian Internet censorship programme - by commentators, analysts and netizens.

News of the proposal first emerged last week when a cabinet order was unearthed by a Thai programmer and spread on social media.

By Monday afternoon more than 72,000 people had signed a petition on Change.org calling on the government to abandon the proposal.

The cabinet statement, published quietly on a government news website, ordered the Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology to "set up a single gateway in order to use it as a tool to control inappropriate websites and information flows from other countries via the Internet".

A ministry spokesman Monday confirmed to AFP that they were working on the plans and aimed to update the public on the proposals within a week.

Internet gateways are the points on a network where a country connects to the worldwide web.

Initially Thailand's Internet flowed through a single gateway owned by the government.

But the sector was deregulated in 2006, allowing dozens of companies to open their own access points - resulting in dramatically increased Internet speeds and Thailand emerging as a regional IT hub.

The junta which seized power in a coup last year has vowed to expand the country's appeal as a hub, unveiling a plan it has dubbed "The Digital Economy".

Censorship and jail 

But the generals have also ramped up censorship, blocking scores of sites and pursuing online critics with criminal charges and "attitude adjustment" sessions.

Prosecutions under the notoriously strict lese majeste legislation have also skyrocketed, with the vast majority of cases brought over comments made online - including a record-breaking 30-year sentence for one man over the content of six Facebook posts.

Rik Ferguson, vice president of security research at Trend Micro, said autocratic regimes in countries like Egypt and Libya have previously reduced the number of Internet gateways during times of political unrest.

"If infrastructure is concentrated under government control, when it comes to the potential to snoop on traffic as well as block content, the possibilities are greater," he told AFP.

Critics of the single Internet gateway plan say it will allow the military to further increase censorship as well as leave the country's IT hub status vulnerable if the gateway fails.

Local technology writer Don Sambandaraksa said a return to the old days of a government monopoly on Internet gateways would be "disastrous".

"The people of Thailand can kiss a fast Internet goodbye purely from technical incompetence, not to mention all the monitoring, censoring and deep packet inspection the military want," he wrote in Telecoms Asia.

Saksith Saiyasombut, a Thai political blogger who frequently writes on Internet censorship, said many IT companies might leave Thailand if the plan went ahead.

"I don't see how bottlenecking all of the country's Internet traffic is going to increase IT competitiveness as officials have claimed," he told AFP.

Many ordinary Thais have flocked to social media to oppose the plan.

"It contradicts policy of promoting Digital Economy," wrote Twitter user #NataliePP.

"It's irrational. State paranoia is driving irrationality," she added.

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