Thai reform body suggests tight regulations on social media

A policy-writing body advising Thailand's military government has suggested imposing stringent restrictions on internet usage, intended in part to identify the posters of all content on services such as Facebook and YouTube.

The government's National News Bureau reported Tuesday that the junta-appointed National Reform Steering Assembly voted 144-1 to endorse an 84-page package of measures to regulate production and consumption of internet content, especially social media.

The package of wide-ranging measures, if adopted, could put Thailand's restrictions closer to those of nations such as China and Iran, which try to tightly control citizens' access to information.

The proposal passed Monday suggests initial steps including requiring that all cellphone numbers be registered with not only Thai users' 13-digit citizen identification numbers — as is already the case — but also their fingerprints and facial recognition data.

Other measures to be taken later include the establishment of a central social media watch center to look for content considered inappropriate by the government. It also suggests upgrading the technology used for intercepting internet communications. The government already has several offices engaged in monitoring online activity and also encourages members of the public to report material considered offensive.

The major target of the authorities has long been criticism and frank discussion of the country's monarchy, which is punishable under the lese majeste law by three to 15 years in prison for each offense, and the Computer Crimes Act, which carries lesser penalties.

Since seizing power in 2014, the ruling junta has in practice also criminalized political dissent and criticism of its actions under the Computer Crime Act and specific measures it implemented itself.

The new proposals are part of the junta's 20-year plan to retain influence over the government after elections are held. The junta is suggesting that polls may be held in 2018, after ignoring previous dates.

Earlier this year, the National Reform Steering Assembly proposed a bill that would set up an appointed council to regulate print and online media and require journalists to be licensed or risk jail.

Thai media organizations urged its rejection, saying its definition of who needs a license is too broad and it restricts freedom of expression.

The issue of Thai internet censorship was spotlighted late last month when a clip from the famous Charlie Chaplin film "The Great Dictator" that had been posted on YouTube was temporarily blocked in Thailand. The clip, showing the Chaplin character delivering a speech calling for people to rise up against dictatorships in the name of democracy, had been promoted by a group commemorating the 85th anniversary of the country's transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one.

YouTube blocks videos from being seen in Thailand if it receives a court order, or if it finds valid complaints that material violates its privacy or standards rules, or infringes on copyright.

In response to a query from The Associated Press, You Tube issued a statement Tuesday indicating that it did not intend to block the short video, which was back up after several days.

"With the massive volume of videos on our site, sometimes we make a mistake," said the statement. "When it's brought to our attention that a video or channel has been removed mistakenly, we act quickly to reinstate it."

The junta appears to be emulating efforts at social discipline in China, where authorities have sought to enforce real-name registration for internet and cellphone users over the past several years with varying degrees of success. Operators of Chinese social networking platforms have acknowledged that requirements for real-name registration have not always been fully implemented because they can be onerous and were likely to hurt their ability to draw more users.

In many major cities, though, it has become harder to obtain cellphone numbers without registering one's ID, and with the proliferation of smartphones in China, many social media accounts are now linked to mobile phone numbers.

However, such requirements are arguably more easily imposed on Chinese internet companies which have long complied with requests that they carry out censorship on the internet in return for the right to compete in a large and lucrative market. Foreign players such as Facebook, YouTube and Instagram are generally inaccessible in China.

Chinese social media platforms employ thousands of people to scrub posts off their sites if they are been deemed to violate censorship demands.