Thailand backs down on threat to ban Facebook

The government of Thailand has backed down on a threat to ban Facebook if it did not block content deemed to be illegal in the country.

The ruling military junta last week said it would ban the U.S. social network if it did not disable Thailand-based users from being able to access a selection of 131 “illicit” posts, including content that violates lese majeste laws that prevent criticism of the royal family. The government set a deadline of 10:00 am on May 16 for the pages to be blocked, but TechCrunch has verified that the social network remains accessible in the country while Facebook has not censored the pages, according to media reports.

Facebook provided the following statement:

“When governments believe that something on the Internet violates their laws, they may contact companies like Facebook and ask us to restrict access to that content. When we receive 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.”

A Thai court initially drew up a list of 309 web pages to be censored. A government spokesperson told the Bangkok Post that Facebook had removed 178 of them as of last week.

Facebook isn’t alone in being pushed to censor its pages. Google and YouTube deleted at least 469 web pages in response to recent government requests, according a report from The Nation. Google did not reply to a request for confirmation or comment.

While Thailand hasn’t enforced a ban on Facebook at this time, it did temporarily block the social network in May 2014, one week after the military seized control of the country via a coup. Speaking at the time, it claimed the issue was down to a glitch, however mobile operator DTAC later revealed that it had acted on an order to block the social network.

Facebook opened an office in Thailand in September 2015, and its audience measure tools suggest it has up to 45 million monthly users. That makes it the largest social network in the country by some margin. Rather than risk a public backlash from a full-out block, Thailand has instead pursued a policy of censoring specific pieces of content within the social network.

This year, it has geo-blocked articles that fall within the lese majeste law and it even making it illegal to exchange information with three prominent critics of the regime who are based overseas. Facebook’s own data shows that the firm restricted access to 50 pieces of content in Thailand during 2016.

In its most recent annual report, Freedom House, a U.S.-based think tank that monitors global web freedom, noted that Thailand’s internet and media are “not free.” The organization cited the jailing of citizens for interacting with Facebook posts and plans for a single national internet gateway to facilitate censorship among its key concerns.