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in-focus

Fears over Computer Crime Act changes


GROUPS WORRY ABOUT LIMITS ON EXPRESSION

LATEST changes to the Computer Crime Act have not been officially completed, but they have already gained considerable momentum. Many people are looking forward to moves by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) review panel that is responsible for revamping the law. But the reason for this does not appear to be pleasant.

When the committee received opinions from the public on the latest amendments on Wednesday, concerns were raised by several rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and the Internet Dialogue on Law Reform, or iLaw.

Most concerns relate to freedom of expression, and whether people’s freedoms will be suppressed by the new amendments. Instead of feeling safe or protected by the law, the groups are more worried that the law will infringe on their rights.

Critics of the Computer Crime Act believe that law has been misused. They say it has moved away from its original intention – to tackle Internet crimes such as online phishing and scams – and is being widely used to charge people with defamation.

At the essence of the amendment is an apparent widening of the scope of offences against Internet users while empowering authorities more in the suppression of alleged offences.

Anont Chavalawan, a law expert at iLaw, said the Computer Crime Act was problematic especially Article 14, which prohibits the posting of “false information”, resulting in the misuse of the law. Anont also said the spirit of the law primarily aims to suppress phishing or forgery.

“The term false information is rather broad. And it covers the content appearing online when actually it is supposed to protect [people against] technology crimes,” he said. “Now, if a message is posted online, people will often be charged with both defamation based on the Criminal Code and the Computer Crime Act, too.”

Anont said the computer crime law should not cover defamation because it could lead to worse punishments – up to two years in jail increasing to up to five years under the Act. But more importantly, Article 14 of the Act is often used to curb critics and activists, the expert said. “It is very easy to complain against Facebook postings or anything that is posted online. Most of the time, critics and activists spread news about what they are working on. And it is easy for them to get charged for posting false information,” Anont said.

Doing so depletes resources, he explained. Instead of focusing on their work, people had to fight cases, which takes both money and time, he said. “Sometimes they cannot resume work until they successfully prove in court that they are innocent. During the lawsuit, the court usually prohibits them from saying or posting anything about other parties, or the court would revoke their bail [if they did not comply with the order],” Anont said.

There are many other examples of people getting charged with a cybercrime for trying to address issues. One such person was Narisarawan Kaewnopparat, or “May’, whose uncle was killed when he was receiving military training as a conscript, the expert said.

May is widely known for seeking the truth about her uncle’s death. She made complaints with many state agencies, alleging that her uncle was abused including being assaulted by military officers in charge of his training. However, May ended up being sued when, on her Facebook page, she wrote about selective justice – how some military officers got suspended from work but those who she alleged to be responsible for her uncle’s death remained at large, according to iLaw.

He said complainants sometimes used a lawsuit as a means to negotiate with activists. “The lawsuit apparently gives them more bargaining power. In Loei province, people tried to stop a big corporation from moving minerals out of the area, but they had to back out because the corporation negotiated that it would withdraw the case [the lawsuit] if the villagers allowed them to take out the minerals,” Anont said.

Another rights advocate, Suthari Wannasiri, a researcher on human rights at Fortify Rights, said that the Computer Crime Act could be abused to prevent activists from working against state policies or big companies. She said because online content can be seen everywhere, sometimes the lawsuit is filed away from an activist’s base, causing a lot of difficulties.

For example, an activist living in Bangkok may have to answer a lawsuit in a court in the Northeast, or an activist living in Isaan may have to go to a court in Bangkok. This was a deliberate tactic, she said, noting the case in which activists in Loei known as “Rak Ban Kerd” (“Love Homeland”) had been sued through courts in Mae Sod and Phuket as they moved against the gold mine in Loei. “It burdens the activists because not only did they have to find lawyers to help them, but they also had to spend time and money to travel to another province to fight the case in court,” the rights expert said.

Kanathip Thongraweewong, dean of the Faculty of Law at Saint John’s University, spoke at a separate forum last week that discussed other sections of the Computer Crime Act. They include sections 15 and 20, which deal with service providers and the role of authorities, potentially restricting freedom of expression and creating a “self-censorship climate”, he said.

At the talk, the participants also voiced concerns over sections 16, 18, and 19, which empower officials to access and eliminate suspicious data – thereby inevitably threatening people’s privacy, they claimed.

Activists are also increasingly critical of Article 20, which stipulates that committees under the Digital Ministry will be able to file a complaint with the courts to remove information from websites deemed to violate social-morality standards. The committee, comprised of members from diverse parties including the private sector, will report directly to the minister about the removal of such information, Pol General Chatchawan Suksomjit, chair of the NLA’s Computer Crime Act drafting committee, said at the Wednesday seminar.

Published : November 27, 2016

By : KASAMAKORN CHANWANPEN THE NATION