This month EIF Asia Advisor Claudio Murri looks into the Thai government's efforts to tighten the internet control in the country and Asia's competitiveness report, which outlines successes and failures.
Thailand’s military government is considering the establishment of a single Internet gateway for the country in a bid to increase its ability to monitor the web and block content. General Prayuth’s cabinet ordered the ICT and Justice Ministries and the National Police Department to study the feasibility of a system which would allow to control inappropriate websites and to regulate the flow of information into the country from overseas. A subsequent cabinet resolution ordered the agencies to report back with any laws that would need to be enacted or amended prior to setting up the single gateway.
These decisions were not widely publicized, but they were recently unearthed on social media by someone browsing the official government cabinet resolution repository. Consequently, a petition was launched against the proposal, which has been dubbed the "Great Firewall of Thailand" - in a nod to the strict control that China has over its own Internet services. At present, the petition has been signed by over 150 thousand people.
There have also been more aggressive acts of online opposition. The so called “Anti-CAT Tower Mob” group (where CAT Telecom is the state-owned company and former monopoly telecom operator that runs the country’s international telecommunications infrastructure, including its international gateways, satellite, and submarine cable networks connections) called on its 129,000-plus Facebook fans to target specific government websites in a simple direct denial of service attack. Thousands of computer users began visiting official government websites while constantly refreshing the page, thereby causing them to crash. At one point over half a dozen government sites, including the MICT, the Ministry of Defense, and the main government website, were down. In response, Thai Police announced that those targeting Government sites could be charged under Article 10 of the Computer Crime Act and spend up to 5 years in prison.
In general, domestic commentators, analysts and netizens point out at the obvious contradictions between these proposals and the Government policy of promoting the Digital Economy. Since the telecom sector was deregulated in 2006, allowing dozens of companies to open their own access points, Thailand has seen remarkable developments in the ICT sector. The Akamai State of the Internet Report, which ranks countries on their connectivity levels, says the kingdom's average internet speed this year is 7.5 mbps, on a par with nations like Australia, New Zealand and France. The wireless market expanded tremendously, with mobile-cellular penetration reaching over 138 per cent and broadband penetration reaching 52 per cent. Thailand is making strong progress in household ICT accessibility and development as well. In 2014, an expansive new policy framework was introduced: Smart Thailand 2020. The principal objective of the new plan is to boost accessibility, making ICTs a basic commodity for the entire country through ongoing improvements in infrastructure and increased mobile broadband penetration. Thus far, Smart Thailand has resulted in the establishment of some 400,000 public Wi-Fi access points. Additionally, Thailand is constructing technology centers to provide access to ICTs in rural areas with a focus on digital literacy. These developments were recognized by the ITU, which awarded Thailand one of its 2015 ICTs in Sustainable Development Awards.
Although the present government, which seized power in a military coup in 2014 continues to support the goal of turning Thailand into a leader in ICT development and a regional data center hub for the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), it is questionable whether they can achieve it, considering that, the country still faces a number of serious issues. The country, for example, is well-known for network insecurity; criminal hackers and spammers can easily compromise the system while hiding their tracks. Furthermore, by international standards, Thailand’s Internet is already considered heavily policed, with its contentious Computer Crime Act of 2007 resulting in an estimated 110,000 websites blocked. Online critics of the government are pursued with criminal charges and so-called "attitude adjustment" sessions Prosecutions under the notoriously strict Lèse-majesté legislation have also skyrocketed, with the vast majority of cases brought over comments made online, including a record-breaking 30-year sentence for one man over the content of six Facebook posts.
Politics aside, from a systems point of view, having a single gateway and a single point of failure is a bad idea. A single gateway handling a lot of data would slow down internet services and might cause nationwide internet services to collapse totally if there was a technical problem. Many people fear that government plans will bring back the country to the situation of the early 1990s by returning to CAT Telecom the monopoly status it once held. This model is remembered very unfondly by older people as the service was unreliable, unnecessarily expensive, corrupt and always behind the technology curve.
Faced with so much criticism the government might back off. Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripituk, at a very recent economic forum in Bangkok, told reporters that the government has in fact decided to abandon the initiative, claiming that the plan was only ever under consideration and never finalized. However, other government sources continue to argue that the plan is necessary to protect Thailand against unwanted content and to restrict Thai youth from accessing unwanted material. These contradictions, and the lack of an official government statement, give raise to fears that, once public opposition subside, the government might revive the idea.
The release of the annual Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) has been received with the usual mixture of feelings in the Asia Pacific region, where nations are constantly and almost obsessively comparing their strengths and weaknesses with those of their neighbours.
In general, the Asia Pacific countries did very well, with Singapore occupying the second place in the Global Competitive index, behind Switzerland, and Japan and Hong Kong well within the top ten. Still, there was much consternation in the press in Taiwan for slipping one position, from 14th to 15th place (its worst showing since 2008, when it ranked 17th). The Taiwanese took some consolation from the fact that they are still doing a lot better (according to this index) than their mainland counterpart, the People’s Republic of China, which is only ranked 28th. In fact, despite its might and dominance of the word economy, the WEF still classifies China among the Asian emerging and developing nations.
In that list, Malaysia scored a better result than China itself, resulting as the most competitive among developing economies and the 18th most competitive nation overall. The worst resulted Myanmar, which only occupies the 131st place overall, and is very close to the bottom of the overall list.
Myanmar, however, is only recently starting to open its markets and is widely expected to improve dramatically in the next few years.
The report evaluated the competitiveness trends among emerging and developing Asian economies as mostly positive, despite the many challenges and profound intra-regional disparities. The five largest members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Malaysia (18th, up two), Thailand (32nd, down one), Indonesia (37th, down three), the Philippines (47th, up five) and Vietnam (56th, up 12) – all rank in the top half of the overall rankings.
The report also finds a close link between competitiveness and an economy’s ability to nurture, attract, leverage and support talent. The top-ranking countries all fare well in this regard. But in many countries, too few people have access to high-quality education and training, and labor markets are not flexible enough.
by Claudio Murri