BANGKOK - Thailand's military-appointed legislature approved a bill Friday tightening the country's already harsh Computer Crime Act, defying critics who said it infringes on the right to free expression.
The National Legislative Assembly voted 168 to 0 with four abstentions to approve amending the 2007 law.
Internet activists had campaigned against the amendment, which will allow the authorities to intercept private communications and block websites deemed harmful to national security or public morals without a court order. Other provisions add specific criminal penalties for undermining national security and entering false information into computer systems, and increase the length of time for which service providers must retain data from 90 days to as long as two years.
The original law was passed to cope with a lack of regulation of the online world. Increasingly it has been used against critics of the government, particularly by the military regime that came to power after overthrowing an elected government in 2014. Thai internet service providers already block some websites with material such as pornography and criticism of the monarchy, and YouTube blocks some similar sites, but only in Thailand.
Some 300,000 people signed an online petition on the change.org website opposing the bill.
"This law is riddled with problems such as the broad interpretation of what sort of data is not allowed on computers, which means people do not know where their boundaries lie," iLaw, a Thai legal monitoring website, said on its website earlier this month.
Arthit Suriyawongkul of the Thai Netizen Network, which promotes online freedom, said the new article covering "false information" could be used by the state to silence opposition if it deems that opposing politicians are distorting the truth.
"The bill is very broad and open to interpretation and we will have to see how the government will implement these laws," he said after passage of the bill, which will become law after the formality of being signed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun.
Activists are also concerned about plans for a single gateway through which all international internet traffic would pass. Because of opposition from many sectors, the government has been evasive about whether it plans to implement such a system, which it claims is necessary for national security.