Bangkok, Thailand (PI) – A new Privacy International investigation reveals Microsoft’s complicity in a serious case of Government persecution in Thailand. It is a shocking example of how Western companies not only work with governments that fall considerably short of international human rights standards, but can actually facilitate abuses of human rights.
In early 2014, a Thai stockbroker, Katha Pachachirayapong, was accused by the Government of spreading rumours on the ill-health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, which the Government claims caused sharp falls in the Thai stock market. Katha was charged under the Computer Crime Act – a law that bans internet users from posting any ‘false information’ online. Due to the vague term ‘false information’, the Computer Crime Act has been used in multiple cases of ‘lèse-majesté’ statements (speaking ill of the monarchy), to prosecute almost any comment about the Royal Family perceived as negative.
In this particular case, Katha is accused of having posted messages on an online forum about the King’s health, claiming he was terminally ill. According to the Ministry of ICT – the complainant in this case – the messages caused a drop in the stock market.
Our investigation has revealed the problematic role played by Microsoft in this case, which provided key documentation that was used against Katha during the trial in March 2014.
One of the three core documents shown in court was a letter from Microsoft – obtained by Privacy International – revealing IP addresses related to the email account linked to the publication of the offending statements. While the letter had done nothing more than state the IP addresses from which the incriminating email account was accessed, it was eventually key to the prosecution’s case in convicting Katha. The document from Microsoft was used to counter Katha’s defense against the charges.
Katha was sentenced to two years and eight months in jail in March 2014. He is appealing this decision. Katha has been denied bail and has remained imprisoned for over a year.
Before the publication, we provided Microsoft an opportunity to respond to our investigation. In their response to us, they claim that they only respond to targeted requests under a valid legal order, adding that the legal order was under Thai law, and was targeted at a specific user. According to Microsoft, they were assisting in an investigation of an email account alleged to have been used to violate Thai law by distributing erroneous information that negatively impacted Thailand’s stock exchange.
Microsoft handed over sensitive user information to an undemocratic government when it knew the investigation was not about terrorism or serious crime but simply about ‘erroneous information’ that affected the stock market. In doing so Microsoft aided a prosecution against free expression.
Eva Blum-Dumontet, Research Officer, Privacy International said:
“Ten years ago, the Chinese Government requested from Yahoo! the IP address associated with an anonymous email account. The email account had been used to send out a list of censorship orders from the Asia Democracy Forum before the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protest. Yahoo! complied and revealed that the IP address was tied to a Hunan newspaper. Shi Tao, a journalist working at the newspaper was arrested and sentenced to ten years in jail. At the time, Yahoo! was heavily criticised for complying with the Chinese Government’s request. Their defense was that they were not aware of the true nature of the case against Shi Tao.
It is totally unacceptable that after ten years, that another major US corporation would blindly comply with legal data requests from blatantly oppressive regimes. Microsoft’s defense is all the more questionable as they argued that they had received a request regarding a violation of Thai law by “distributing erroneous information that negatively impacted Thailand’s stock exchange.” Since when can “distributing erroneous information” reasonably be considered a crime? We do appreciate that corporations have to comply with local legislation, but this cannot be used as an excuse to disregard international human rights standards, in this case about the right to free expression. It is shocking and disturbing that a Western company would collude with such a clear and flagrant abuse of a simple and fundamental right”.
This report prepared by Privacy International.