The military government of Thailand is steadily moving forward with plans to build a massive Internet firewall that would allow officials to censor and conduct surveillance on nearly all digital traffic in and out of the country.
The decree would establish a single Internet gateway for Thailand, instead of the current 10, through which all digital data would pass. That could enable government authorities to closely monitor email communications – using "deep-packet inspection" (DPI), which aids analysis of data bits that have been divided into packets – and block access to any website it chooses.
The firewall cabinet resolution, passed at government meetings in June and July, have only recently come to light. Hours after the first report, Thais at home and abroad organized to oppose the move, saying it would slow Web traffic and violate their privacy.
The head of Thailand’s Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, Uttama Savanayana, said Friday the decree wasn't designed to censor or spy on Web traffic, but to "serve basic economic needs."
That explanation stands in contrast to a recent Thai cabinet statement saying the single gateway "will be a tool to control inappropriate websites and the inbound of information and news from overseas to Thailand."
Thais familiar with censorship
Internet censorship is nothing new in Thailand. Several successive governments have routinely blocked media sites such as YouTube for criticizing the government or the monarchy. The latter is a crime with harsh penalties under Thailand’s strict "lese majeste" laws.
Since taking power in May 2014, the ruling military junta repeatedly ordered Thai ISPs to block hundreds of websites, including, for a time, Facebook and Google. But the single gateway plan, if enacted, would create a much more restricted Internet, much like China’s so-called Great Firewall.
Ironically, Thailand’s moves to tighten Internet control come just as President Xi Jinping, during a state visit to the United States last week, met with tech leaders including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to explore ways to open up China's Web.
Don Sambandaraksa, Southeast Asia correspondent for TelecomAsia.net, helped break the story about Thailand's single gateway initiative. VOA spoke with him to learn more about the resolution and what it might do.
VOA: How is this now only coming to light?
Prior to this cabinet resolution, there were at least three other cabinet resolutions that I have uncovered regarding the single gateway project itself.
Cabinet meeting minutes showing from June 30 and July 14 show an order for the single gateway to be set up with the explicit aim of "censoring undesirable websites" and to "control the flow of information into the country from overseas via the Internet."
On the minutes published the third of August, the cabinet ordered the ICT Ministry to expedite the implementation of the single gateway and have it up and running in a meaningful manner before the end of fiscal 2015 on September 30.
Most recently, and the one that set up the entire issue, on September 4, the cabinet ordered the ministers to identify any laws that would need to be amended to make the project implementation possible. One can presume that in that meeting, Uttama held up his hands and said that it could not be done as it breaks too many laws, hence the order to identify and report back on what laws would need to be amended or enacted in order to make it so. "
VOA: Previous to this decree (if that’s the best word) from the military government, what’s been the history of Internet surveillance and censorship in Thailand?
On a general level, all Thai governments want to control the Internet and do not trust it. All have failed miserably. What is different this time is that this government is, from a bureaucratic point of view, very professional. Previous governments have ordered changes only to have them go away. This one is pushing and pushing, giving deadlines, and when they cannot be met, issuing orders to the ministries involved to tell them exactly why not and what laws would need to be amended in order to make it possible.
For instance, the previous government of Yingluck Shinawatra saw her ICT Ministry talk about single gateways, smart-card based logins for every citizen and IPv6 addresses assigned to every individual to totally lock down the Internet. Nothing happened, of course.
Up until now, censorship orders are issued by the authorities (usually the Technology Crime Suppression Division of the Police Department or the ministry of ICT). Blocking is haphazard. Some sites are still accessible via some ISPs, sometimes for hours or days after it is censored on another.
VOA: You write that authorities want to establish a single gateway for the Thai network. Specifically, does this mean they intend to funnel all traffic through a single node or entry point, which, presumably, the government could control and monitor?
Yes, the government wants to create a single point for them to control and install deep-packet inspection. The raison d’etre for the single gateway was clearly stated: to censor inappropriate websites and to control the flow of information. The single gateway is a means to that end. I have it on relatively good authority that the government has been installing DPI gear on existing gateways.
Since then, the ICT Minister has backtracked, saying the "single" gateway is actually just another new gateway that will offer lower costs and has nothing to do with national security.
VOA: If this happens, what do you believe the effect will be?
If it happens, it will be disastrous. Most of the industry players I talk to just laugh it off and they expect the junta to try and to fail miserably at implementing it.
I am not so sure, for reasons that cannot be said. I think that when the time comes, [the authorities] will want an off switch and [they] will not care what it costs... to have that off switch. The real question is whether all this talk of the single gateway will scare companies away before either that day or before they give up? That’s anyone’s guess.