By Kavi Chongkittavorn
At the moment, governments around the world must wrestle with the dark side of a growing use of social media. Some countries deem it as a huge threat to their national security and social fabric, despite the benefits that come with its global connectivity.
For instance, within the region, the rise of violent extremists and terror threats have persuaded Asean members to impose stronger measures on digital surveillance. Thailand is no exception.
Therefore, each country has to deal with unique local challenges in order to protect its national security, which quite often impinges on citizens’ freedom and liberty. Democratic countries all around the world have cyber-security policies and approaches in place to ensure the balance between the need to protect national security and civil liberty. No single country has perfect Internet governance.
Internet governance is a big issue that takes time to figure out the best practices.
The way this government currently approaches the whole process in managing digital challenges is just not suitable. It responds mainly to some prevalent foolish views that the Internet must be controlled stringently now as the country is going through transition - or so the conventional wisdom goes. Otherwise, the Thai political situation will not be stabilised as Thais will use social media to say whatever they like without thinking of the consequences.
Therefore, lawmakers have simply concluded that the best solution is to control the Internet. Thailand remains the only country with a relatively free press that seeks to control the Internet. The rest of the world tries to control press freedom and let loose on Internet control.
Thailand has to make sure that use of the Internet will benefit the public. To do so, Internet governance must not be decided by a handful of ill-informed and one-track mind-set officials – civilians or uniformed people.
At this juncture, there is urgent need to engage all the stakeholders – the government, private sector and the public. So far, they are not working together, literally living in silos — thinking they are doing favours for their country, companies and public interest. But not one realises as a whole the country is suffering for its lack of holistic and sensitive policies and plans.
For instance, while this government understands full well the economic importance of the Internet, it does not appreciate at all the freedom that has to come with it to pro?mote such interest. Therefore, the much-heralded plan to create Thailand as a hub of e-commerce for Asean and the world would remain a pipe-dream if such stringent Internet control were to be allowed.
Private telecommunications firms in Thailand are the most notorious, selfish bodies, lacking in genuine corporate responsibility and good practices.
Extensive and deep-budget public and media relations, coupled with personal ties with media proprietors and editorial writers, have saved their reputation and promoted the illusion they are doing the right things for society.
In the case of the Thai public, they need to be educated about Internet governance and what is needed to ensure they maximise freedom on the Net to promote economic and social changes. Also, what are the limits when it comes to national security and future terror threats? So far, the government has only talked about fraud, scams and the use of malware.
Thailand is lucky because it has not yet been a target of cyber attacks as many other countries in the region have suffered. There have been few incidents of hackings – at a low level – which were not disruptive to the country’s critical infrastructure.
However, in light of recent developments after the Erawan Shrine bombing and Thailand’s new foreign policy approaches, the security apparatus is focusing on tightening the cyber-security regime.
It is sad that Thailand’s reputation as a free media country has been tarnished due to a few hard-heads at the top who think that the Internet can be controlled by a single gateway. It is a fallacy. Each day, the Thai government is spending at least Bt1.7 million on digital surveillance, which has not yet yielded any tangible result, except building up more cases to back up support for more Internet controls. Most of the shut-down and banned websites – tens of thousands of them – have been mainly mirror sites. Court orders for such actions have been abused by officials responsible for digital surveillance.
In fact, what they have done is considered self-destructive as their plans and strategies end up contradicting each other. They all have good intentions but that does not mean they will yield positive results. Thailand cannot muddle through this way now at this transitional period.
The Single Gateway must be abandoned otherwise the country’s digital infrastructure will be crippled. As in Finland and South Korea, the government should use the Internet, which has become an
integral part of our lives, as a driving force for better political and societal transformation.