After restricting access to a popular group with posts critical of Thailand’s monarchy, Facebook is planning legal action against the Thai government, which the social media giant says forced it to restrict content deemed to be illegal.
On Monday, Reuters reported access to Royalist Marketplace had been blocked within Thailand. Users there who try to visit the group, which has over a million members, now see a message that says access to it has “been restricted within Thailand pursuant to a legal request from the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society.”
In a media statement emailed to TechCrunch, a Facebook spokesperson said, “After careful review, Facebook has determined that we are compelled to restrict access to content which the Thai government has deemed to be illegal. Requests like this are severe, contravene international human rights law, and have a chilling effect on people’s ability to express themselves. We work to protect and defend the rights of all internet users and are preparing to legally challenge this request.”
The spokesperson added, “excessive government actions like this also undermine our ability to reliably invest in Thailand, including maintaining an office, safeguarding our employees, and directly supporting businesses that rely on Facebook.”
The group was started in April by Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a dissident living in self-exile in Japan, where he is an associate professor of political science at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
Pavin told Reuters that Royalist Marketplace “is part of the democratization process, it is a space for freedom of expression. By doing this, Facebook is cooperating with the authoritarian regime to obstruct democracy and cultivating authoritarianism in Thailand.”
The geo-restriction of Royalist Marketplace comes as thousands of pro-democracy protestors in Bangkok demand reform of the monarchy, including abolition of a strict lese-majeste law that mandates prison sentences of up to 15 years for people who defame members of the monarchy.
Pavin has been openly critical of Thailand’s monarchy. In a piece published on the Council of Foreign Relation’s website earlier this month, Pavin wrote that “for several decades now, the supposedly constitutional monarchy of Thailand has often proven to extend its powers beyond constitutional norms and rules,” intervening in politics as the current king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, established closer ties with the military.
In a 2014 New York Times opinion piece, Pavin described having a warrant issued for his arrest by the military junta that overthrew the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014. He was also attacked by a intruder in his Kyoto apparent, which Pavin believes “was a warning for my continuing to hold, and express, my positions.”
The restriction of Thai users’ access to Royalist Marketplace took place three weeks after Thailand’s Minister of Digital Economy and Society, Puttipong Punnakanta, threatened to take action against Facebook because he said it did not comply quickly enough with the government’s requests to restrict content.
In 2016, Thailand enacted the Computer-Related Crime Act, which the Human Rights Watch warned “gives overly broad powers to the government to restrict free speech, enforce surveillance and censorship, and retaliate against activists.”
Facebook is also under scrutiny in India, its biggest market by number of users, after the Wall Street Journal reported that Ankhi Das, the company’s top public policy executive in India, had opposed applying the platform’s hate-speech rules to a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party.