Thailand said this week it is preparing to sue Facebook in a move that could see the platform shut down nationwide over scammers allegedly exploiting the social networking site to cheat local users out of tens of millions of dollars a year.
The country’s minister of digital economy and society, Chaiwut Thanakamanusorn, announced the planned lawsuit after a ministry meeting on Monday.
Ministry spokesperson Wetang Phuangsup told VOA on Thursday the case would be filed in one to two weeks, possibly by the end of the month.
“We are in the stage of gathering information, gathering evidence, and we will file to the court to issue the final judgment on how to deal with Facebook since they are a part of the scamming,” he said.
Some of the most common scams, Wetang said, involve paid advertisements on the site urging people to invest in fake companies, often using the logo of Thailand’s Securities and Exchange Commission or sham endorsements from local celebrities to lure them in.
Of the roughly 16,000 online scamming complaints filed in Thailand last year, he said, 70% to 80% involved Facebook and cost users upwards of $100 million.
“We believe that Facebook has a responsibility,” Wetang said. “Facebook is taking money from advertising a lot, and basically even taking money from Thai society as a whole. Facebook should be more responsible to society, should screen the advertising. ... We believe that by doing so it would definitely decrease the investment scam in Thailand on the Facebook.”
Wetang said the ministry had been urging the company to do more to screen and vet paid ads for the past year and was now turning to the courts to possibly shut the site down as a last resort.
“If you are supporting the crime, especially on the internet, you will be liable [for] the crime, and by the law, it’s possible the court can issue the shutdown of Facebook,” he said. “By law, we can ask the court to suspend or punish all the people who support the crime, of course with evidence.”
Neither Facebook nor its parent company, Meta, replied to VOA’s repeated requests for comment or interviews.
The Asia Internet Coalition, an industry association that counts Meta among its members, acknowledged that online scamming was a growing problem across the region. Other members include Google, Amazon, Apple and X, formerly known as Twitter.
“While it’s getting challenging from the scale perspective, it’s also getting complicated and sophisticated because of the technology that has been used when it comes to application on the platforms but also how this technology can be misused,” the coalition’s secretariat, Sarthak Luthra, told VOA.
Luthra would not speak for Meta or address Thailand’s specific complaints against Facebook but said tech companies were taking steps to thwart scammers, including teaching users how to spot them.
Last year, for example, Meta launched a #StayingSafeOnline campaign in Thailand “to raise awareness about some of the most common kinds of online scams, including helping people understand the different kinds of scamsters, their tricks, and tips to stay safe online,” according to the company’s website.
Luthra said tech companies have been facing a growing number of criminal and civil penalties for their content across the region while urging governments to give them more room to regulate themselves and to apply “safe harbor” rules that shield the companies from legal liability for content created by users.
Shutting down any platform on a nationwide scale is not the answer, he said, and he warned of the unintended consequences.
“It really, first, impacts the ease of doing business and also the perception around the digital economy development of a country, so shutting down a platform is of course not a solution to a challenge in this case,” Luthra said.
“A government really needs to think of how do we promote online safety while maintaining an open internet environment,” he said. “From the economic perspective, it does impact investment sentiment, business sentiment and the ability to operate in that particular country.”
At a recent company event in Thailand, Meta said there were some 65 million Facebook users in the country, which also has the second-largest economy in Southeast Asia.
Shutting down the platform would have a “huge” impact on the vast majority of people using the site to make money legally and honestly, said Sutawan Chanprasert, executive director of DigitalReach, a digital rights group based in Thailand.
She said a shutdown would cut off a vital channel for free speech in Thailand and an important tool for independent local media outlets.
“Some of them rely predominantly on Facebook because it’s the most popular social media platform in Thailand, so they publish their content on Facebook in order to reach out to audiences because they don’t have a means to set up ... a full-fledged media channel,” she said.
Taking all that away to foil scammers would be “too extreme,” Sutawan said, suggesting the government focus instead on strengthening the country’s cybercrime and security laws and enforcing them.
Ministry spokesperson Wetang said the government was aware of the collateral damage a shutdown could cause but had to risk a lawsuit that could bring it on.
“Definitely we are really concerned about the people on Facebook,” he said. “But since this is a crime that already happened, the evidence is so clear ... it is impossible that we don’t take action.”