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How Democracies Clamped Down on the Internet

Authors: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia, and Elizabeth Leader
April 8, 2012
The Boston Globe

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In many ways, Thailand is a beacon of high technology, with a huge computer-component industry and a vibrant online culture. But when you log onto the Web in its capital city of Bangkok, sites often load excruciatingly slowly. It's not for any lack of broadband access. It's because over the past five years, the Thai government has instituted firewalls and blocking policies that have strangled Internet speed.

The country currently bans as many as 100,000 websites for posting content allegedly offensive to the Thai king. (The country is a constitutional monarchy, with a democratically elected parliament, but the king actually enjoys enormous political clout.) Web masters are thrown in jail for being too slow to remove comments criticizing the government from their sites. Just to make sure its citizens don't discuss the monarchy freely, the country maintains a 24-hour Internet monitoring war room, filled with Web spies who troll the Internet looking for anyone who violates the country's 2007 Computer Crimes Act.

It may seem surprising that this massive filtering and blocking effort would be taking place in one of the more open and democratic nations in Asia. But Thailand is hardly unique in this regard. The world, and leaders of democratic nations, may associate Internet censorship with highly authoritarian states like China, North Korea, and some of the Middle Eastern nations where unrest has spread in the past year. But in fact a growing and little-appreciated threat to Internet freedom may actually come from democracies themselves.

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