WIRED: HOW DO you break the internet? The experience of the last decade seems to show that the internet is invulnerable to whatever we want to make of it, or however we want to stop it, writes DANNY O’BRIEN
No matter how much we talk of how dangerous and uncontrolled the internet is, we do not seem to pass any laws that restrict or tame it successfully. Anti-spam laws can be draconian, for instance, but seem to have little overall effect. Censorship systems are regularly instigated by countries, but are easily evaded.
Nor, to be honest, do we appear to see as much damage wreaked by the internet’s tentacles as its critics claim.
The internet seems to survive without central control. Good or bad, it has a life of its own.
But having spent the past few weeks travelling and speaking to internet users in Thailand and South Korea, I’m not so sure any more. The internet can be broken – and from the best of intentions.
The two countries could not be further apart in terms of internet adoption: South Korea has better broadband speeds and higher usage than almost all western countries; Thailand is just beginning its use of the internet. But both are attempting, in broad strokes, to control their local internet, and the results are disturbing.
I’ll write more on South Korea’s experience next week. But in Thailand, we can already see the effect of how the early growth of the internet can be warped by regulations that seek to control it through its weakest links – web hosts and internet service providers (ISPs).
Because of the lessons learned from other countries’ experiences, the Thai government has been able to copy much of its new “cybercrime” legislation from existing laws. But in mapping these new crimes to Thailand, the powers-that-be have added more.
As well as making hacking and computer fraud crimes, Thailand’s new cybercrime law insists that intermediaries are responsible for what happens on their corners of the internet. So if a person posts a defamatory comment on your website, you can be prosecuted and face jail. If a person connects to their local ISP to post an offensive video to YouTube, the ISP is criminally liable for this act.
Needless to say, it is much easier to fine YouTube than an anonymous poster, and even easier to prosecute a local Thai internet company than the US owners of YouTube. As a consequence, large foreign companies and the actual creators of the forbidden speech in Thailand largely escape scot-free, while prosecutors concentrate on those they can nab most easily.
Those easy catches are the innocent bystanders who are building the Thai internet’s infrastructure: the coders and workers who would, in another country, be laying the profitable foundations for the next Facebook or Boards.ie. Instead, they are treated in Thailand by press and prosecutors alike as criminals.
The largest web-hosting company, 212cafe.com, whose site is one of the most popular in Thailand and which hosts hundreds of thousands of personal websites, was recently prosecuted for a post by a single user.
Chiranuch Premchaiporn is the director of a web forum, Prachatai.com, which has diligently worked to build moderation systems that can remove an offensive post within minutes.
She is now being prosecuted by the authorities for a posting on the web forum that the police themselves did not notice or report, and that was so elliptical and allegorical in its criticism of the government that the board’s moderators did not understood it well enough to remove it.
These web developers risk thousands of dollars in penalties and face years in prison for the simple crime of building tools to let any Thai citizen speak online.
The very Thai citizens who are are building this exciting future live under constant threat of having their businesses raided, their hardware confiscated and their websites taken down.
Rather than using individuals like Premchaiporn to help find the real criminals, the authorities are arresting them and abandoning any further investigation.
Meanwhile, the Thai government department that is supposed to promote the internet instead proudly announces how many websites it has managed to block. That is akin to a ministry of roads constantly announcing how many bridges have been burned and how many new roadblocks are in place.
Fortunately, some are fighting back. Supinya Klangnarong, a prominent Thai journalist, won a court case in 2006 after being personally sued for defamation for a commentary she wrote in the Thai Post newspaper.
All too aware of the risks of misused laws governing free speech, she has been working with an internet activist group called the Thai Netizen Network to stop these injustices by defending the innocent in court.
It is hard to fight bad laws case by case. It is even harder to convince politicians to reform the existing law (especially when it has only been on the books for a few years). But unless they do so, Thailand risks crippling its own internet, and its economic future.