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Thailand: Digital Ministry Established as Part of National Digital Economy Plan

(June 14, 2016) It was reported on June 3, 2016, that Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly, whose members have been appointed by the military government, unanimously approved legislation establishing a new Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (MDES) in the country. (NLA Approves Establishment of Digital Ministry, BANGKOK POST (June 3, 2016).) This administrative change is part of a broad, multi-year initiative undertaken by the government to establish a digital economy in Thailand and transform the country into a digital society.

The current Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) will become the new MDES, and most of the articles of the legislation on the new Ministry prescribe the transfer of MICT officers and assets to the new Ministry. (Thailand’s New Digital Economy, ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT (Jan. 13, 2015); Sasiwan Mokkhasen, Thailand to Welcome New Digital Ministry, KHAOSOD ENGLISLH (June 4, 2016).) The Ministry is accorded the “administrative scope to plan, promote, develop and implement activities related to a digital society and economy.”  (NLA Approves Establishment of Digital Ministry, supra.)  It will be in charge of the National Statistics Office and the Thai Meteorological Department, and the legislation on it also creates several new agencies, including a National Committee of Cyber Security and a Digital Commission for Social Affairs and the Economy.  (Id.; Mokkhasen, supra; Wendy Zeldin, Thailand: Draft Laws to Promote Digital Economy, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (Dec. 17, 2014).)

In a note to the Cabinet, the parliamentary committee that reviewed the legislation had made several recommendations on its implementation. It stated, for example, that the Ministry should create appropriate agencies to further government policies on “the effective and efficient development of the digital economy” and that “the government should speed up the restructuring of government agencies and personnel to allow the new ministry to function efficiently and effectively.”  (NLA Approves Establishment of Digital Ministry, supra.)

National Digital Economy Master Plan

On February 8, 2016, the Committee on Preparations for Digital Economy and Society approved the draft Digital Development Plan for Economy and Society. Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha chaired the Committee.  (Digital Economy Cited as a Significant Step for the Thai Economy (Apr. 3, 2016), Government Public Relations Department website.) The plan will be implemented over a 20-year period, in four phases: establishment of the digital foundation, entry into a digital economy and society through the participation of all sectors, attainment of the full potential for reform for a “Digital Thailand,” and application of digital technology to upgrade Thailand to a developed economy.  (Committee for Digital Economy and Society Approves National Digital Economy Master Plan, Royal Thai Government website (last visited June 10, 2016).)

There are six strategies to implement these goals: creation of a “hard” digital infrastructure across the country; acceleration of the economy by driving it with the use of digital technology; creation of a “digital society”; switching of the public sector to a “digital government”; development of a workforce ready for the digital era; and creation of of public confidence in the use of digital technology.  (Digital Economy Cited as a Significant Step for the Thai Economy, supra.) In addition, pilot projects will be launched to develop Phuket and Chiang Mai as “smart cities,” and small and medium-sized enterprises will be encouraged to conduct business using the digital economy.  (Id.)

As part of the plan, MICT proposed the adoption of eight items of legislation, in addition to laws on the MDES and the Digital Commission for Social Affairs and the Economy, to support development of the digital economy. The eight items are:

  1. Electronic Transaction Bill (amendment)
  2. Computer-Related Crime Bill (amendment)
  3. Cybersecurity Bill
  4. Personal Data Protection Bill
  5. Digital Economy Promotion Bill
  6. Digital Development for Economy and Society Fund Bill
  7. Broadcasting and Telecommunication Regulator Bill (amendment) and
  8. Electronic Transaction Development Agency Bill (amendment).  (Thailand’s Digital Economy-Cyber Security Bills [English Translation], Thai Netizen website (Jan. 15, 2015) https://thainetizen.org/2015/01/digital-economy-cyber-security-bills-en/Digital Thailand 2016, MICT website, http://www.mict.go.th/view/1/Digital%20Economy (last visited June 8, 2016) (in Thai).)

In addition to the restructuring of MICT, the changes, if adopted, would mean a restructuring of two state-owned companies: TOT, which provides mobile and wireless broadband services, and CAT Telecom, which operates the country’s “international infrastructure, including gateways, satellites and submarine cable networks.” (Thailand’s New Digital Economy, supra.)

However, it has been reported, “[t]he most significant organisational change would see the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) cease operating as an independent regulator” and “come under the scrutiny of a new Digital Economy Policy Committee [chaired by the Prime Minister], which will be responsible for setting guidelines and policy under the digital economy framework.” (Id.)

A Digital Economy Fund, comprising spectrum auction funds, 50% of the NBTC’s licensing fees, and augmented by government seed money and donations would be used for upgrading Thailand’s telecom infrastructure. A committee chaired by the Prime Minister would oversee the Fund’s spending and determine the criteria for allocation of funds; a committee of financial and legal experts would evaluate the Fund’s performance.  (Id.)  Another source of funding the reforms would be a national holding company created to own and operate the country’s fiber and tower assets and manage a broadband ‘backbone,’ enabling the Fund to generate revenue by renting such assets to private companies.  (Id.)  Another funding mechanism proposed by the government is the addition of value-added tax to payments for mobile apps.  (Id.)

With the establishment of a proposed new Cyber Security Commission, also under the aegis of the Prime Minister, telecom operators would be required submit a range of digital information, so that court orders would no longer be needed to obtain it. The computer crime legislation proposes to protect intellectual property and copyright in part by means of the granting of new powers to block websites guilty of piracy.  (Id.)

Rights Groups’ Concerns re Digital Economy Moves

According to one news report, activists for digital freedom and rights fear that the creation of the new ministry is actually “a government power grab to increase their control online.” (Mokkhasen, supra.)  There is also concern that the digital economy proposals in general would expand even more the government’s already “substantial involvement” in the telecom sector, posing a threat to private companies’ existence and therefore to the private investment needed to help meet the country’s growing demand for Internet capability.  (Thailand’s New Digital Economy, supra.)

On May 26, representatives from Amnesty International, Thai Netizen Network, and Privacy International submitted a joint statement on their concerns about proposed amendments to the Computer Crime Act, alleging that some of the amended articles could curtail netizens’ rights and infringe against privacy. By way of example, they noted that under article 20 the authorities would be allowed “to remove any information that is considered to be against public morals or liable to instigate unrest, even if the content is not illegal.”  (Mokkhasen, supra.)  In addition, Thai Netizen Network reportedly found MICT online documents recently indicating that it plans to ask Internet service providers for access to encrypted data.  (Id.)

Last year, on January 14, 2015, six civil organizations had issued a joint statement criticizing the Cabinet’s approval of the eight items of legislation on the digital economy, contending that they are “national security bills in disguise” and “will pave the way for a state monopoly of the telecommunication business.” (Thai Junta’s Digital Economy Bills Are National Security Bills in Disguise: Rights Groups, PRACHATAI (Jan. 14, 2015).) They further charged that the junta-led government “also attempted to reduce the participation of civil society by cutting the quotas of civil society representatives on the committees to be established under the bills and instead increase the quotas of government officials.”  (Id.)