BANGKOK - Logging on to the corner coffee shop's public Wi-Fi in Thailand could get a good deal more public in the coming months, following a government order that cafés across the country start tracking and saving their customers' online activity.
The Digital Economy and Society Ministry says it needs access to the data to help its new anti-fake news center crack down on cyber-criminals. Rights groups say it's the government's latest attempt to stamp out political dissent and free speech.
"Government authorities are attempting to use the argument of 'fake news' and the power granted under the Computer Crimes Act to silence all dissent and to create an environment of fear resulting in individuals censoring themselves from questioning [or] criticizing the actions of the government," Emilie Pradichit, director of rights group Manushya, said of the order.
She said the "log files" in question could include users' browsing histories but also a record of who they send messages to or receive them from.
"This is very concerning since this information will be given to the anti-fake news center, that so far has no rules on how it would use or assess information and no rules that places limitations on its misuse," Pradichit added.
The 2007 Computer Crimes Act requires all service providers to record users' computer traffic and store the data for 90 days, or up to a year if ordered by authorities. But until now the government has made no effort to enforce the rule among public Wi-Fi providers, and few shops or restaurants have followed through.
Digital Economy Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta issued the sudden reminder this week, on the heels of the arrest of pro-democracy activist Karn Pongpraphapan for "inappropriate tweets" allegedly threatening King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is protected from reproach by the country's strict lèse majesté law.
It also comes after a general election in March that was meant to signal the end of five years of military rule. The political wrangling that followed the inconclusive poll results saw the leaders of the 2014 coup secure the top posts, and critics of the new government accusing the military of having rigged the system to stay in power in all but name.
Rights groups see the latest order on coffee shops as continuing the junta's efforts to tighten the noose around its online critics. They have also raised red flags over amendments to the Computer Crimes Act in 2016 that added prison time for fake news, a new Cybersecurity Act that lets authorities monitor online traffic without a court order under loosely defined conditions, and now an anti-fake news center to search out and counter false information on social media that threatens "national security."
Yingcheap Atchanont, project manager at legal rights group iLaw, believes the timing of the order for coffee shop log files and Karn's arrest were deliberate and meant to work in tandem to intimidate Thais calling for more democracy.
"I think they cannot arrest all people who are speaking up against ... the government or the monarchy, but they just want to arrest maybe someone who [is] quite famous or in the spotlight to show that this [is] what they can do, and maybe they want to scare people to be more careful when they want to speak about something," he said.
The Digital Economy Ministry and Buddhipongse's staff did not reply to VOA's requests for comment.
Bhume Bhumiratana, who has advised the government on cybersecurity legislation, said he spoke with Buddhipongse, however, soon after the order and that authorities would not be going from shop to shop.
"He didn't intend for it to mean that he's going to strictly enforce this," he said. "He just realized that there is this law and that he wants to remind people that it's better if everyone sort of helps the government by doing this."
Bhume said he did not believe the order was meant to silence critics. But he conceded the money that cafés would have to spend to install the necessary hardware and software would outweigh the potential to catch genuine cyber-security threats.
"That's a lot of cost to a lot of small business in the country, and the benefit it [the government] gains is not that huge because if criminals were to use coffee shops — that are public places — to hack people, I mean, that's a risk in itself. They would also fake their identity," he said.
"So the benefit is not that great because good criminals would get away with it anyway, and the cost is real," said Bhume.
Poonnaluck Tangngam, owner of Baker Gonna Bake, a quite café and bakery a short stroll from Bangkok's busy Sukhumvit thoroughfare, said she had no plans to follow the order unless forced to do so.
She chuckled at the idea it actually would catch many criminals — or critics.
"Everywhere you can do like this. You cannot stop people [doing] these things," she said. "You have nothing [else] to do?"
Instead, she said the government should focus on more pressing matters facing the country.