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Exactly Where Does Facebook Think It Can Sue Thailand?

Analysis: The social network's lawsuit threat is a joke, and its critics know it

Facebook Censorship

Facebook doesn’t have many good days these days, but Monday was particularly embarrassing. In one breath, the social network puffed out its chest in an uber-American way – “We’ll sue” – and then bowed again to an authoritarian regime’s censorship request.

“Once again, Facebook is caving to the whims of repressive governments while making meek appeals to human rights, setting another dangerous precedent for freedom of expression online,” said Rasha Abdul-Rahim, Amnesty International’s “Amnesty Tech” acting program director.

“Facebook should fight the government’s demands in every forum it can to protect Thai people’s human rights,” agreed John Sifton of Human Rights Watch in a statement. “Thailand’s government is again abusing its overbroad and rights-abusing laws to force Facebook to restrict content that is protected by the human right to free speech.”

The content in question is social-media platform’s Royalist Marketplace group run by self-exiled monarchy critic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who has attracted 1.2 million users to his parody of “marketplace” groups popular among university students and alumni.

The Digital Economy Ministry claimed the group shared false information deemed to be a threat to national security and threatened to sue Facebook’s Bangkok office if it did not block local access to the group.

The legal threat came as Facebook already was facing an Aug. 25 deadline to comply with numerous page-takedown requests made by the government.

Facebook made a big deal about threatening to sue the Thai government, but didn’t say where that could realistically succeed. After all, what court in the country won’t throw the case out within minutes after it’s filed?

Clearly, the government isn’t worried. Discussing the issue with reporters Tuesday, both Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai basically told Facebook “bring it on”.

“Facebook is operating in Thailand, so we have the power to investigate things that happened in Thailand. Anything that violates Thai laws is unacceptable,” Don said.

Prayut just held up his hands, professing he wasn’t a dictator anymore.

“The order came from the court, so if there’s a prosecution against us, we will fight it on Thai legal grounds.”

Amnesty Tech said it was “welcome that Facebook is now planning legal action to challenge the government’s censorship demand, but the harm has already been done: the company should not have given in to the demands in the first place.”

Undoubtedly, this will be the last we hear from Facebook about a legal challenge. By the end of its statement it was clear the company had tucked its tail between its legs and hid under the bed.

Thailand’s attempts to quell commentary online will turn into a losing game of Whack-a-Mole.

“We have done everything we can to come to a resolution that ensures people can still express themselves, whilst accommodating local laws,” the company said in a statement. “However, despite our best efforts the government has declined to engage further and has threatened to pursue criminal proceedings against Facebook Thailand.”

While it was hardly the first time Facebook has caved to the demands of government censorship demands – recent examples include Vietnam, India and Myanmar – the company said it wasn’t happy about it.

“Excessive government actions like this also undermine our ability to reliably invest in Thailand, including maintaining an office, safeguarding our employees, and directly supporting businesses that rely on Facebook,” the statement continued. “This speech is protected by international human rights law, including Thailand’s commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

Pavin was quick to lead the condemnation of Facebook’s spinelessness.

“By doing this, Facebook is cooperating with the authoritarian regime to obstruct democracy and cultivating authoritarianism in Thailand.”

In the end, however, the entire exercise – on both sides – is pointless. Within hours of the blockage, Pavin opened a new group and almost instantly gained half a million members. Thailand’s attempts to quell commentary online will turn into a losing game of Whack-a-Mole.