Thailand: Internet users who even view 'illegal content' to face legal action
A picture illustration shows a Facebook logo reflected in a person's eye. Reuters

Thailand police said on Monday that the authorities are not only targeting those who post or share material considered insulting to the monarchy, but also those who look at it. This move comes in an escalation in how Thailand is dealing with critics of the royal family.

"The division will be the one to decide whether going in and viewing illegal content violates the law or not," deputy police spokesman Major General Songpol Wattanachai told Reuters. "Authorities will ask people to cooperate not to view illegal content."

Thailand has a technology crime suppression police division that handles inappropriate content and computer crimes which are insulting to the monarchy.

The monarchy is a powerful and widely revered institution in Thailand. King Bhumibol Adulaydej, who died last year aged 88, was widely loved and considered semi-divine by some. Last December, his son King Maha Vajiralongkorn, ascended the throne.

According to Article 112 of Thailand's criminal code, anyone who insults the king, queen, heir or regent will be punished with up to 15 years in prison for each offence. Since a coup on May 22, 2014, the junta has been accused by human rights groups of using the laws as a way to silence its critics and of applying them more widely.

The messaging services and social media firms, including Facebook have been pressurized by the military government to help remove content critical of the monarchy. But, even describing the content could be an offence under the lese majeste laws. The laws limit what news organisations based in Thailand can report.

Earlier this month, the authorities warned Facebook Inc to take down content deemed threatening to security or violating lese majeste laws or face legal action. The internet users have also been warned that if they like or share content critical of the monarchy, they could also face legal action.

"It has gone to a new level of aggression when even viewing now is considered a crime even though there is no law criminalising viewing content insulting to the monarchy," Sunai Phasuk, senior Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch said.

He added: "It shows the willingness of authorities to go beyond the bounds of the law. It might be a case of picking on some to scare others."

However, it remains unclear how the police are going to identify viewers. According to the law, the authorities have to ask for cooperation from internet service providers (ISPs).

"In practice, the police must state their evidence to ask to see traffic data," Morakot Kulthamyothin, president of the Thai Internet Service Provider Association, said.

Under the Computer Crime Act, the authorities must have grounds to believe that a crime has been committed in order for ISPs to hand over a user's traffic data. The act says that ISPs must keep users' traffic data for up to 90 days.