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Protesters Block Thai Websites over Plan for Single Gateway

FILE - People surf the web at an Internet cafe which in Bangkok, Sept. 29, 2010.
FILE - People surf the web at an Internet cafe which in Bangkok, Sept. 29, 2010.

Protesters have blocked access to several Thai government websites over a plan to route all Internet traffic though a single gateway, which would make it easier for the military junta to monitor and censor communications.

Critics compare the plan to China's “Great Firewall” and systems in other countries such as Iran where the flow of information is tightly controlled.

Government officials have given different explanations for the plan, including that it would save money and stop young people from accessing inappropriate sites, and have said in response to criticism that it is still under study.

Critics charge it is designed to spy on and stifle political opposition and would make Thailand's international Internet access more fragile by forcing it through a single choke point.

Information and Communication Technology Minister Uttama Savanayana, a major proponent of the plan, has suggested that having a sole gateway under the control of state-owned telecommunication companies CAT Telecom and TOT would make service more efficient than the present system, which also includes eight private-sector gateway operators. Skeptics point to the poor records of the two state companies in providing fixed-line and mobile telephone service.

The websites of the Information and Communication Technology Ministry and other agencies were temporarily knocked out Wednesday and Thursday after activists accessed them repeatedly, overwhelming their servers, in what is generally called a distributed denial of service attack. Those hit included the main government e-portal, the Internal Security Operations Command, the Royal Thai Army and the defense, interior, and finance ministries.

Uttama said traffic to his ministry's website on Wednesday was 16 times what it normally was, after an online appeal by activists to incapacitate it. He preferred not to call it an attack, saying the action “could be a symbolic action from groups of people who are concerned about the single gateway.”

The plan for a single gateway was quietly approved at a Sept. 1 Cabinet meeting and only became public knowledge when a sharp-eyed Internet user spotted it on an obscure corner of a government website. An outcry mounted quickly among businesses concerned about speedy, stable communications, as well as ordinary users concerned about their privacy. An online petition to “Go against Thai Gov't to use a Single Internet Gateway” has been launched.

“We haven't proceeded at all on this matter,” said Uttama, who has been forced to defend the scheme. “At this stage we are still discussing and studying all possibilities. I would like to assure you there will be no attempt to limit your freedom in using the Internet.”

Plans for a single gateway first surfaced after the army overthrew an elected government in May last year, but apparently without any follow-through. The military has said that one of its priorities is defending the institution of the monarchy, and has prosecuted social media users accused of insulting the royal family. It also has summoned people who have criticized the junta on social media and held them for several days of confinement and questioning known as “attitude adjustment.”