Junta to Facebook -- cooperate with us or else

30 May 2014

Facebook went dark for a couple of hours in Thailand on Wednesday, 27 May. What followed was a lot of confusion, conflicting reports and a general realisation the military junta had the power to crack down on social media and was not afraid to use it.

Initial reports from TV station Spring News quoted ICT Minister Permanent Secretary Surachai Srisaracam as saying the block was on orders from the military junta as Facebook was being used for activism, though this was quickly denied as the minutes ticked by.

Much later an official statement came out that blocking Facebook was never official policy and officials blamed it on a network outage due to a high number of users.

AIS towed the official line saying that the outage was because of traffic.

This was met with ridicule from most of the developer community in Bangkok. As one of my friends Tweeted (translated), “Yeah, right. A network outage caused the IP address of Facebook to change.”

It’s a safe bet that someone tried to shove 30 million Facebook users through one box through a DNS hijack and the result was a catastrophic network failure.

The question is by whom and why.

“Either they were trying to configure the box and accidentally deployed it, or the [MICT] perm sec ordered it on purpose to make the junta look bad. I don’t think there were any coincidental network problems,” one of my friends who is head of security at a multinational told me.

ICT Ministry Permanent Secretary Surachai Srisaracam was appointed to his job at what is arguably the height of power of the Yingluck Shinawatra government after his predecessor was indicted for corruption in the ongoing Shin Satellite scandal. Previously he was governor of the backwater Nakhon-Nayok province and was a big fan of the former Prime Minister. The first time I met him, he gave a long speech on how he would let Yingluck Shinawatra take the success of his smart village project to the United Nations so it could be replicated the world over.

Surachai has announced plans for state owned telcos CAT and TOT to operate a single internet gateway so that censorship can be applied more effectively.

Meanwhile, away from cloud cuckoo land, one cannot help but wonder if the initial Spring News report was in fact correct in that he had ordered it, perhaps through liberal, opportunistic interpretation of the junta’s directives, to discredit his new bosses.

Or it could actually have been a junta message, not so much aimed at the users of the social networking site, but rather at Facebook and other dot coms - “Cooperate with us and ban content we do not like or lose 30 million users”.

The next day the junta called in representatives from internet companies to request cooperation and Facebook and Naver LINE were conspicuous in their absence.

On a related note, on Thursday Police Major-General Pisit Pao-in, commander of the cyber-crime division, announced that a number of LINE IM accounts used for stirring up unrest had been blocked and that a task force would be flying to Japan to ask for further cooperation from its developers, Naver in Japan.

Back in August Pisit said that Naver had been helping him tap into LINE chats, a claim that Naver denied. However, that led to an investigation that showed that LINE turned off all encryption when on 3G, allowed for long-life reusable tokens and did not use any encryption for voice messages.

It was obvious that the assistance Pisit was referring to was the way LINE’s developers left the door wide open, rather than any active assistance per se.

On a bootnote, while mainstream western media is quick to portray the coup as the next chapter of a struggle between progressive Thaksinites and traditionalists, the signals people in Thailand have been getting is much more mixed. Thaksin Shinawatra’s proxy government had already lost in the courts and was on the back foot when the coup happened. Recent appointments of two Thaksin Shinawatra-era ministers to the junta advisory council, analogous to deputy prime ministers, and promotion of key figures in the bloody crackdown on anti-Thaksin protests has left many scratching their head as to what kind of reconciliation with Thaksin Shinawatra the junta has in mind. The Facebook incident is yet another recent event that has left each side blaming the other and dividing opinion as to who ordered it and who benefited from it.

Truth, as they say, is the first casualty of war.

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