For 20 days in the 2010, a user comment, later deemed by Thai officials as
offensive to the king, was posted to a message board on the Thai news website Prachatai. Last Wednesday, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the Prachatai webmaster who failed to delete that comment in timely fashion was fined 20,000 baht ($635) and given an eight-month suspended prison sentence.

It could have been worse: Premchaiporn faced up to 20 years in prison for failing to quickly delete 10 such user comments. But that she removed nine of them fast enough— in less than 11 days—to satisfy Thailand’s bureaucratic sticklers should be little consolation.

We’ve written before about Thailand’s pernicious expression laws and the chilling effect they have on the press. Ranking 137th on Reporters Without Borders’s most recent Press Freedom Index, Thailand rates hardly better (and in some cases, worse) than its notorious neighbors—Burma, Laos, and Cambodia—due to its harsh lese majeste or royal defamation law, which punishes, usually with long jail terms, anyone who uses speech that could be interpreted as an insult to the royal family. In the past, this has included the authors of scholarly books. Policing of such speech has grown only more aggressive with Thailand’s political troubles and the proliferation of technology; in recent years, even mild and cryptic language has been interpreted as lese majeste.

But Wednesday’s verdict, which hinged on the interpretation of Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act—it criminizalizes “intentionally supporting or consenting to an offense … within a computer system,” ie hosting offensive content created by a third party—
signals new problems, not just for content producers, but also for content providers like Prachatai, or like Facebook and Twitter. Not only will sites have to moderate user comments cautiously and quickly, observers in Thailand have noted websites may become targets for malicious commenters.

It’s perhaps not surprising then that Google, which in the past has cooperated with Thailand’s lese majeste law and blocked ‘offensive’ websites and YouTube videos on the government’s request, is pushing back this time. The company issued a statement calling Wednesday’s
verdict a “threat to the potential of Thailand’s Internet economy.”

Though she was only convicted on one of 10 counts, convicting her for something she never wrote sends a clear message to the entrepreneurs and business leaders who run Internet platforms in Thailand that they can and will be penalized for the independent actions of users….

Telephone companies are not penalized for things people say on the phone and responsible website owners should not be punished for comments users post on their sites. Unfortunately, Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act is being used in this case to do just that.

Indeed, for Thailand, the verdict against Premchaiporn is a case of going from bad to
worse.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.