Tech

Tim Culpan is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Gadfly. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

Earlier this year, the Thai government announced its desire to create an economy of fresh new businesses through a 20 billion baht ($555 million) fund.

Its stated goal was to "increase the number of startups in Thailand to 10,000 by 2018," Information and Communication Technology Minister Uttama Savanayana was cited as saying in April, according to the Bangkok Post. "The year 2016 is a golden year for Thailand's startup industry."

At the same time, the government had been polishing off amendments to its Computer Crime Act, which were passed this month by the country's legislature and are due to take effect around the middle of 2017.

Opponents are concerned that the revisions are both broad and sharp, with a wider range of offenses added to the existing cyber law and increased ambiguity opening up enforcement of the statute to abuse by authorities. This would allow the government "to restrict free speech, enforce surveillance and censorship, and retaliate against activists," according to Human Rights Watch.

Backlash against the bill's passage came in the past week with government websites, including that of the defense ministry, being hacked or taken offline, reportedly by activists opposed to the new law. Adding fuel to concerns are comments from Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon who, according to the Bangkok Post, last week reignited talk of Thailand's Single Gateway through which all internet traffic would pass to cope with "information attacks."

Catching Up
Once a regional leader, Thailand is facing stiff competition as Asean rivals boost Internet usage
Source: International Telecommunication Union
Note: Data shows "Percentage of Individuals Using the Internet" for the five-largest Asean nations by population.

Thailand's revised Computer Crime Act and its single gateway are actually separate issues. But taken together they can easily be viewed as being attacks on the nation's internet freedoms. That's not a good omen for a country that says it wants to attract foreign investment in local startups, build an ecosystem, accelerate innovation and expand overseas.

Generally speaking, censorship and curbs on freedom of information don't tend to accelerate innovation or help overseas expansion because they can limit collaboration and development of new ideas. The notable exception is China, where companies not only have a home market of 1.3 billion people but a government with both seemingly infinite financial resources and the willpower to keep out foreign competitors.

If Thailand wants to model itself on China then it would do well to understand that such an approach requires vast armies of cadres to keep people toeing the party line and enough technical chops to ensure no one hacks the defense ministry (and gets away with it). It will also need to accept that its home-grown stars will probably fail to expand overseas: Thailand's smaller population and more modest wealth mean such a walled garden will stunt technological development while the rest of the region leaps forward.

Just Stay Home
The failure of China's biggest tech companies to internationalize serves as a warning to other nations
Source: Bloomberg

With a revised Computer Crime Act passed and a single gateway now in its sights, Thailand's economic and political leaders need to decide if they want a free and vibrant startup culture, or a meek and mild populace. They can't have both.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tim Culpan in Taipei at tculpan1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Matthew Brooker at mbrooker1@bloomberg.net