Facebook has complied with a Thailand government order to block a group critical of the Thai monarchy, but the social media giant said it will pursue legal action against the demand.
On Monday, August 24, Facebook blocked access within Thailand to a group named “Royalist Marketplace,” which has amassed over a million members within four months of its creation.
"After careful review, Facebook has determined that we are compelled to restrict access to content which the Thai government has deemed to be illegal," Facebook said in a statement to CNN Business.
Facebook data showed that the site restricted access to about 1,500 posts in Thailand last year, acting on the requests of Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society for allegedly breaching the country’s Computer Crimes Act and strict “lese-majeste” laws, which makes criticizing the monarchy punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
“When we restrict content based on local law, we do so only in the country or region where it is alleged to be illegal,” Facebook said.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a self-exiled academic in Japan, expressed disappointment over Facebook’s decision to block the group he created on April 16.
“When they informed me last night that they would block the group, I was not surprised but I was very disappointed,” Pavin told VICE News. He said that he was aware that Facebook had “cooperated with the Thai regime” in the past to take critical content off the site.
Two Facebook officers in Singapore and Bangkok informed him of the decision at least an hour before the group was closed down, he said.
“You have a certain responsibility as the largest social media platform in the world to protect your space for freedom of expression,” he said. “If you fail, then you set a bad example.”
“You obstruct democratization, not only in Thailand but also in Southeast Asia, if not in the world,” he added.
A Facebook spokesperson told CNN Business that it is preparing to legally challenge the Thai government’s request, saying it was working “to protect and defend the rights of all internet users.”
"Requests like this are severe, contravene international human rights law, and have a chilling effect on people's ability to express themselves,” the company said.
Pavin welcomed the announcement from Facebook but accused the social media giant of “lip service.”
“At least Facebook is now doing something right, not necessarily by saving my group, but by setting an example that [freedom of expression] is a basic human right,” he said.
Following the local takedown of his page, Pavin said he created a new Facebook group that has already amassed some 500,000 members.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) called out the Thai government for limiting free speech.
“Make no mistake, it is Thailand that is breaking the law here—international law protecting freedom of expression. Facebook should fight the government’s demands in every forum it can, to protect Thai people’s human rights,” John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at HRW, said in a statement.
According to Reuters, Thailand’s digital minister threatened Facebook as early as August 10 and said the company disobeyed its Computer Crime Act, which carries a fine of up to 200,000 baht ($6,355) and an additional 5,000 baht ($158) per day until each order to take down content is carried out.
From cyberspace to the streets of Thailand
Thailand has grown bolder in its crackdown on dissent as pro-democracy protests have rocked the capital of Bangkok. Several leading pro-democracy figures have recently been swept up in mass arrests.
Pavin said that his Facebook group, which was created before the recent wave of protests began, has partly inspired Thailand’s youth to take action.
“I think the group has inspired them to take the issue of the monarchy from cyberspace to the streets of Thailand,” he said, adding that he hopes the pro-democracy movement becomes politically active and encourages debate.
While the fate of his now-defunct Facebook group hangs in the balance, Pavin said that he was proud of the country’s new protest movement.
“This is the first time that students have dared challenge this taboo subject,” he said. “No one else before them would have been able to talk openly about the monarchy in such a way.”