This article was authored by Don Sambandaraksa, and was originally posted on telecomasia.net.
Suppose for one minute that Thailand’s military government is indeed hell-bent on getting their single gateway internet and ignoring all the yes-men and politicians who deny its existence and seem to be scrambling to protect the Dear Leader from any criticism whatsoever. Undoubtedly the best description of the gateway is the interview by NBTC commissioner Colonel Setthapong Malisuwan with the BBC.
The BBC published a clip about the single gateway on its Thai Facebook page that left little room for interpretation. Setthapong talked about control mechanisms in Singapore, the UK and the USA and how officials would no longer need to monitor remotely as now everything will be in one place which would make surveillance easier. One cannot help but feel the good Colonel was referring more about creating a Thai NSA or GCHQ and that the single gateway was merely a means to an end.
As one wise friend of mine once said, “The Good People (the junta) have taken the [Edward] Snowden revelations as a to-do list”.
The fact Setthapong said it on the same day that the junta deputy leader and the government spokesperson both denied the project’s existence was, by this stage, just funny.
Reading the Prime Ministerial orders (in plural) that officials deny exist but are freely downloadable from the cabinet website (protip - if you are going to tell a fib, take contrary information off your own website first) confirms exactly that - the order was to create a way to censor and control the flow of information and have meaningful progress by the end of fiscal 2015 (30 September 2015). The single gateway is but a means to an end.
One thing I uncovered in researching the single gateway orders was how hard cabinet resolutions are to come by. Instead of cabinet resolutions, Thailand now has “summaries of the news from the cabinet meetings” published each week, which is not quite the same thing. These official cabinet summaries have been sanitized of all mention of the single gateway.
However, the prime minister’s orders which are still available from the cabinet secretariat website mention single gateway many times and also refer to a whole list of cabinet resolutions about the gateway, resolutions that do not seem to exist on the public cabinet record.
The question, for my friends in mainstream media, is what else has been kept secret from the people of Thailand and wiped from the summaries? Indeed, are the published summaries even accurate? How can a society function if cabinet resolutions are kept secret?
He who controls the past controls the future and he who controls the present controls the past.
But I digress.
The Good People want to protect the monarchy from the redshirts and I am sure the vast majority of Thais agree with that, despite what some sectors of western media would like us to believe. But the way this argument has descended into a royalist (pro-gateway) vs republican (anti-gateway) brawl is just so wrong.
I had a friend in the media call me unpatriotic and accused me of publishing fake documents (I did tweet the PM’s order about the single gateway to a whole load of Prayuth apologists) while another tagged me in a piece about how the permanent secretary of the Prime Minister’s Office said the PM had never mentioned the Single Gateway and said it was the creation of selfish people with a hidden agenda. My only agenda is the truth and to geek out with tech, but again I digress.
But what I do not get is how clamping down on the internet and probably half destroying it will help achieve that in the long run.
A single gateway is obviously a bad idea from a technical standpoint and hardly needs any further thought exercise on why we should not copy China and North Korea.
Remember the incident last year when the junta ordered all ISPs to block Facebook as a trial run? All ISPs did block it, but Dtac snitched on it and was the only one to tell the world that it was a junta order and not a technical issue. The Single gateway would indeed solve that problem - the problem of one ISP telling the media what was going on, not the one of control of Facebook
Yes, you can block individual websites without having to go through cumbersome court orders and the new digital economy law, one of the two laws that new ICT Minister Uttama Savanayana said would be expedited, allows for the digital economy commission to order any operator to comply with secret surveillance or blocking orders and even goes so far as to grant indemnity from prosecution for anyone carrying out digital economy commission orders.
Note too that all the public officials say is that they will comply with the law. The fact that the law is changing to give them absolute power was not mentioned in any interview.
But how would a single gateway help with individual Facebook or Youtube users that the junta wants blocked? Indeed, I would go so far as suggesting that if the end game is to win the war with the redshirts, then letting them rant on Facebook until they slip up and are identified is probably more effective than clamping down and scaring them underground in the encrypted darknet world which is even harder to monitor.
What of encrypted communication channels like LINE instant messenger? Oh, wait, I forgot the last ICT Minister (and the police) thanked LINE for sharing information about anti-monarchists with them and then gave the LINE country manager a job at his ministry.
But that is precisely the point. Technological blocks are clunky and blunt instruments, whereas a revolving door policy sure beats a single gateway policy hands down in weeding out anti-monarchists.
Or even do what India did: Offer free Internet access but only with encryption turned off. Paying ISPs and Facebook to offer unencrypted free Internet would probably be cheaper and do more to accomplish the mission than the single gateway could ever hope to accomplish.
With Facebook and Google setting up shop in Thailand, coercion would go a long way, perhaps like slapping them with the full set of stupid withholding tax rules that require payments to be made in person for a tax deductible receipt or else? Which is exactly what all the telcos have to do today if you have a business account anyway and why then need a zillion branches nationwide. Thailand is an important market. No, not that important, but important enough for them to be setting up shop here.
Derek Davies, former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, once said of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, ‘having failed to stop the foreign media from "meddling in Singapore's domestic affairs," instead of attempting to control editors and journalists, he would target the pockets of owners and publishers. "I will hit you where it hurts. Then we will see your commitment to a free press."’
Perhaps if Thailand really wants to copy a totalitarian regime to achieve social control, that is the way to do it, not this technical folly called the single gateway that will fail, and will probably decimate both the digital and real economies on its road to failure unless the Good People come to their senses soon.
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