Facebook has blocked users in Thailand from accessing a video that shows the country’s king strolling through a German shopping mall wearing a crop-top revealing his distinctive tattoos, accompanied by one of his mistresses.
The social media titan blocked the video, not because it’s obscene or infringes on its own terms and conditions, but because Thailand’s government deems it insulting to the king and in violation of the country’s laws banning criticism of the monarchy.
“When governments believe something on the internet violates their laws, they may contact companies like Facebook and ask us to restrict access to that content,” a Facebook spokesperson told VICE News in an emailed statement.
The geo-blocking of the otherwise banal video highlights Facebook’s increasingly difficult position in attempts to grow its business abroad, often in countries whose strict local laws run counter to the company’s own stated goal of creating a more “open and connected” world.
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, Mark Zuckerberg said he remained committed to free speech despite receiving death threats for certain posts on Facebook. ”Different voices, even if they’re sometimes offensive, can make the world a better and more interesting place,” he said. Ahead of elections in the U.K. next month, Facebook announced it took action against fake news, including suspending tens of thousands of potentially fake accounts, the New York Times reported.
But today Facebook faces growing criticism for the opacity of its censorship policy, which includes complying with requests to censor content by authoritarian regimes around the world. It has blocked content in Turkey after the government said it was insulting to the Prophet Muhammad. Facebook’s power to enforce decency around the globe was questioned last year after it censored the iconic Vietnam-era photo of the naked 9-year-old “napalm girl” — for violating its rules.
What was in the video
Facebook confirmed to VICE News that last week it blocked anyone in Thailand from accessing the video showing 64-year-old King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun last June, just months before his father died and he ascended to the throne. VICE News obtained the video from Andrew Marshall, a journalist and a vocal critic of the Thai regime, who posted it to his own Facebook page.
The video was filmed by a Thai citizen who recognized the king in Riem Arcaden mall in Munich on June 10, 2016, before being passed to Marshall. The video shows Vajiralongkorn walking through the shopping mall, with a woman who is believed to be one of his mistresses, Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, aka Koi. The king’s bodyguards are also visible in the video.
Vajiralongkorn’s distinctive tattoos make him easily identifiable, and he has been photographed in almost identical clothing on several previous occasions. This however is the only known video showing the king dressed in this style.
King Vajiralongkorn — whose full name means “adorned with jewels or thunderbolts” — took to the throne in December following the death of his father, the much-loved King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Although details of his extravagant and controversial lifestyle were widely reported outside of Thailand when he was crown prince, his subjects for the most part remain oblivious, thanks in no small part to the country’s strict lèse-majesté laws, which effectively prevent citizens from openly discussing any details of the new king’s life.
“So a video like this chucks a bomb into all of that,” Marshall told VICE News. “While people may not necessarily be surprised, I think it would have a significant impact if it was widely seen, it would help puncture the bubble of the monarchy.”
Facebook’s challenge in Thailand
Facebook said that when it receives such a request “it is scrutinized to determine if the specified content does indeed violate local laws. If we determine that it does, then we make it unavailable in the relevant country or territory and notify people who try to access it why it is restricted.”
Gennie Gebhart, a researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says Facebook is in a difficult position. “This and other ongoing Thai government attempts to censor social media point to both the government’s increasing willingness to censor content critical of the monarchy as well as all the hurdles it faces in doing so in an HTTPS-encrypted, social media environment,” she said.
After Marshall posted the video on his Facebook Page last month, the government banned all citizens from contacting him and two other critics of the Thai regime via social media. One of those was Somsak Jeamteerasakul. The activist was contacted by Facebook who told him what content was going to be blocked and why it was blocked.
This, Marshall says, is Facebook’s way of fighting back against the government’s strict laws that don’t align with the company’s public values. Following pressure from dissidents, journalists and groups like the EFF, Facebook now requires a court order before it blocks any content, it will only block specific posts rather than entire pages, and it notifies users when their posts are being geo-blocked.
“Then we can actually publish the fact that they have geo-blocked something and use the ‘Streisand effect,’” Marshall said, referring to the idea that the act of hiding something makes it more visible.
Facebook’s lack of transparency about how it censors content led 70 human rights groups and activists to write to Mark Zuckerberg in October demanding the company clarifies just how it decides which content to censor, claiming it has in the past removed content documenting human rights violations.
Marshall, a former Reuters journalist who wrote a book entitled “A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century,” says he sympathizes somewhat with Facebook’s predicament. “They are caught in the middle, because Thailand has these ridiculous laws, where anything you say that is deemed critical of the monarchy can get you jail sentences of hundreds of years,” he said.
Growing Thai censorship
Censorship is on the increase in Thailand. According to Facebook’s own figures, in the first six months of 2016 it restricted 10 pieces of content in Thailand. That figure increased to 40 for the second half of the year. Last week a prominent Thai human rights lawyer was arrested and charged with insulting the monarchy. If convicted, he faces up to 150 years in prison.
The government last year contacted Facebook directly, and asked them to cooperate and remove posts which broke the country’s laws. While the government publicly said Facebook had agreed to cooperate, the company said it never agreed to such a deal.
The Thai government has closed almost 7,000 web pages or websites since 2015 under Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act. However it cannot block individual Facebook pages and the likeliness of blocking Facebook is slim, given the social network’s popularity in the country. Last week the Thai government issued court orders to local ISPs demanding they shut down 600 Facebook pages, a sign that the government isn’t getting the cooperation it would like from Facebook itself.
Facebook’s cooperation with Thailand and other authoritarian regimes raises the question of what it will do to gain access China, where it has been blocked since 2009. Zuckerberg has made significant overtures to China — not least of which learning Mandarin and speaking at Tsinghua University — but free speech and human rights advocates raised concerns after it was reported the company was working on a special censorship tool that would allow it to operate there.