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Google Slams Thai Law as Webmaster Found Guilty of Royal Insults

Google Inc. (GOOG) criticized a Thai court ruling that penalized a webmaster for insults to the royal family posted to a Bangkok-based website, saying it threatens the growth potential for Internet businesses in Thailand.

Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who manages web content for Prachatai, violated the Computer Crimes Act because she failed to quickly erase content deemed insulting to the monarchy, Bangkok’s Criminal Court said yesterday. The court gave her an eight-month jail sentence that it suspended for one year.

The ruling “is a serious threat to the future of the Internet in Thailand,” Ross LaJeunesse, Google’s head of public policy in the Asia-Pacific region, said in a statement. The precedent “is bad for Thai businesses, users and the innovative potential of Thailand’s Internet economy,” he said.

The sentence is the latest in a growing number of convictions for royal insults that has prompted academics to call for revisions to the lese-majeste law, a move the country’s major political parties have denounced. The U.S., European Union and United Nations asked Thailand to respect freedom of speech following convictions last year.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 84, took the throne in 1946 and serves as head of state. Thailand’s constitution says the king “shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated.”

Computer Crimes Act

“Telephone companies are not penalized for things people say on the phone and responsible website owners should not be punished for comments users post on their sites,” LaJeunesse said in yesterday’s statement. “But Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act is being used to do just that.”

The Asia Internet Coalition, an industry group founded by Google, EBay Inc. (EBAY), Skype, Nokia Oyj (NOK1V) and Yahoo! Inc., said last year that Thailand’s Computer Crimes law may deny Thais access to online services such as social networks and web forums. A draft bill to replace the legislation uses vague language and fails to meet international standards, the Washington-based Center for Democracy & Technology said in a March report.

Police charged Chiranuch in 2009 under a crackdown on royal insults appearing on the Internet that was initiated by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, according to Human Rights Watch. She faced as many as 20 years in prison.

‘Stifle Free Expression’

“By convicting the manager of a news website of a crime, the Thai authorities are showing the extreme lengths they are willing to go to stifle free expression,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement yesterday. “More and more web moderators and Internet service providers will censor discussions about the monarchy out of fear they too may be prosecuted for other people’s comments.”

The Computer Crimes Act is related to Thailand’s lese- majeste law, which falls under Article 112 of the criminal code and mandates jail sentences as long as 15 years for defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen, heir apparent or regent. This week the Campaign Committee for the Amendment of Article 112 submitted almost 30,000 signatures supporting a proposal to change the law, including reducing the maximum penalty to three years for insulting the king and two years for other family members, the Bangkok Post reported.

Prachatai is a non-profit daily web newspaper established in June 2004 that often includes articles about the monarchy. It has received $50,000 the past three years from the U.S.-taxpayer funded National Endowment for Democracy, according to its website.

To contact the reporters on this story: Suttinee Yuvejwattana in Bangkok at suttinee1@bloomberg.net; Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok at dtenkate@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net

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