Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep Thaugsuban during no-confidence debate, June 2, 2010

Thailand discovers the Streisand effect

One of the many paradoxes of 21st century Thailand is how remarkably open the authorities are about the immense lengths they go to to block the free flow of information.

Huge billboards were erected overlooking key Bangkok expressways earlier this year, showing a smiling Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva chatting on the phone. “If you find an inappropriate website,” read the caption, “call 1212.”

It was not clear from the billboard whether the photograph of Abhisit was supposed to depict him doing his civic duty by phoning the hotline to report an internet infraction he had inadvertently stumbled upon, or whether lucky citizens who dialed in with tip-offs about unacceptable online content might find the call answered by their prime minister himself, eagerly jotting down the offending URL before swinging into action. The billboards were the work of Thailand’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, which proudly issues regular updates about the number of websites it is blocking. According to FACT, Thailand has blocked well over 100,000 websites, the first country in the world to reach this dubious milestone. When Abhisit came to power in December 2008 following the blockade of Bangkok’s airports by royalist protesters and a judicial intervention that dissolved the previous ruling party, his Information and Communications Minister Ranongruk Suwanchawee – wife of an influential politican who had been banned from office –quickly announced very publicly that her top priority would be cracking down on the communication of information. Her successor Juti Krairiksh, who took over this year, continued the job: he said Abhsiit had told him that internet monitoring was one of the three most important things he would ever do for his country (the other two remain mysterious).  Several agencies and task-forces have been set up to hunt and block inappropriate websites, and Abhisit has announced that Thailand will appoint computer-literate students, teachers and bureaucrats as “Cyber Scouts” to help police the internet – an echo of the Village Scout movement set up in the 1970s to fight Communism and protect the monarchy. The government is certainly not censoring its enormous enthusiasm for censorship.

In June, Global Voices Advocacy calculated that the number of blocked websites was now at least 113,000, and commented:

Thailand is rapidly become an Internet desert approaching leaders’ paranoia in Burma and North Korea.

The obvious question is: Why? Why is Abhisit’s government expending so much time, energy and money scouring the internet for websites to block?

The answer the government always gives is: Protecting the monarchy. Senior government, police and military officials say complex plots are afoot to overthrow Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej and turn the country into a republic.

The military’s Centre for the Resolution of Emergency Situations (CRES) has distributed a diagram to journalists to shed light on the conspiracy, and this very interesting transcript of Channel News Asia correspondent Anasuya Sanyal’s interview with the deputy director general of Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation provides further eyebrow-raising details.

As part of the plot, officials say, conspirators are flooding the internet with inappropriate and offensive material aimed at discrediting the monarchy. This is why it has been necessary to launch a vast campaign of censorship.

There are two problems with this strategy. The first is that technology and the ingenuity of internet users are increasingly outpacing the ability of authoritarian governments to censor information. You can censor hundreds of thousands of websites, but it only takes one website that beats the blocks to blindside you.

The second is known as the Streisand effect. In 2003, Barbara Streisand attempted to sue photographer Kenneth Adelman to force him to remove an aerial photograph of her California mansion from the internet, citing privacy concerns. The photo was one of 12,000 Adelman had posted online as part of the California Coastal Records Project. It is safe to say that before Streisand’s legal action, very few people knew it was possible to find a photograph of the mansion on the Coastal Records project, and even fewer bothered to view it. But once Streisand launched her bid to have the photograph removed from the public domain, suddenly everybody wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Over the next month alone 420,000 people visited the site. Streisand’s lawsuit was thrown out and she ended up with a large legal bill to pay after achieving the exact opposite of what she had wanted.

Now it’s Thailand’s turn to suffer the Streisand effect.

Its internet censorship activities have generated a lot of international attention over the past couple of years. An increasing number of people are wondering what kind of offensive material about the monarchy is being circulated on so many websites, and why the government feels it must be constantly vigilant.

It just became even easier to find out. After Thai authorities blocked access to Wikileaks this year, a group of activists launched Thaileaks on August 19. The homepage states:

For unknown reasons the Thai Government has closed access to the Wikileaks website. This means that Thai internauts and webizens are not allowed to take part in the current netbased movement of freedom. This is not acceptable, anywhere in the world. Therefore we make all Thai-related content from the Wikileaks website available for direct download. We will continue doing this for every country that blocks essential internet infrastructure. The internet is an intricate system of tunnels, we will dig a hole in every national firewall…

Please note – This is not about disrespecting the Thai State or the Royal family. It is about making a statement for the freedom of information.

No offense, this is about the internets! If you are a censorship regime, expect us!

The site includes detailed instructions on bypassing government blocks and filters, and gathers a large amount of sensitive content on one easy-to-use page. Even a cursory look at the site will reveal that one royal in particular seems to feature prominently in many of the banned items. And by spending some time perusing the links assembled on the Thaileaks page, observers of Thailand will be able to draw their own conclusions about whether claims of a sinister and wide-ranging conspiracy to topple the monarchy are credible, or whether there are other reasons why this material has been banned.

If you want to know why Thailand’s government is so frantically cracking down on the internet, Thaileaks is a good place to start finding the answer.