Future

Europe To Silicon Valley: Time To Pay For Your False Promises

In Germany, where privacy matters, data should be protected
In Germany, where privacy matters, data should be protected
Ulrich Schäfer

-OpEd-

MUNICHWe are making the world a better place: That has been a central promise that helped Silicon Valley's Internet giants seduce the public, on their way to gaining unprecedented power over our lives. That vow remains at the heart of the message of Mark Zuckerberg and his company Facebook. The goal, as Zuckerberg has always said, is to create a large community, a global platform for sharing that would eventually bring us all closer together.

This heal-the-world rhetoric can be found everywhere on Facebook, right down to its data policy — which is supposed to make users aware of what information they're handing over to the company and of what the side effects can be. Instead, this digital information notice begins with a sentence that says a lot about the way Facebook sees itself: "We give you the power to share as part of our mission to make the world more open and connected." In other words, give us as much personal data as possible, and you and humanity will be better off!

You have to look at this way of thinking, this attitude — I'm just doing something good — to understand why Zuckerberg kept silent for more than three days before he finally said he was sorry, however half-hearted his apology was, for what has turned into the biggest data scandal in Facebook's young but potent history. During those three days, the company's share price plunged while outraged politicians summoned Zuckerberg, investors threatened to sue and a "Delete Facebook" campaign spread. The public began to consider stepping off the social platform, aware that their own data could end up in the hands of Cambridge Analytica, the UK company that harvested the profiles of 50 million Facebook users — and which ultimately also helped Donald Trump win the U.S. presidential election.

Europe would do well to oppose American-style digital capitalism.

This data scandal may be even bigger than just Facebook, marking a turning point in our relationship with Internet companies. This all took place in a week when it's become clearer than ever before that Silicon Valley's central promise of salvation can no longer be believed. The unbridled digital capitalism of American influence has made the world a worse place, in some respects. It is a place where data, in many cases, is no longer secure, where laws — for example those regulating the taxi industry or apartment rentals— are stretched, or simply ignored. We now see that we are living in a place where Russian trolls and companies like Cambridge Analytica can manipulate elections using Facebook, where millions of digital laborers perform their services without any sort of social security, where cheaper and cheaper labor has become the rule for driving and delivery services. Meanwhile, the same Internet companies use all kinds of tricks to minimize their tax burden, and make space for the flooding of the European market with cheap goods from Asia, unbeknown to fiscal authorities.

Europe would therefore do well to oppose American-style digital capitalism with its own European-style digital market economy, in which the social commitment of property would be key. Ownership comes with obligations: This sentence should not only apply to employees, society and the government, but also to the regulation of data. Those who own a particularly large amount of data also have a particularly large obligation to handle it carefully. And those who earn a particularly large amount of money with that data mustn't move it to tax havens.

The Zuckerbergs of this world are naturally reluctant to agree to regulation. The Facebook founder, for instance, used his apology interview to counter-attack and criticize Germany's Network Enforcement Act introduced in January and which was designed to restrict hate speech online. Naturally, the tax for Internet companies proposed this week by the European Commission isn't to the liking of Google, Amazon and Facebook either. But even if we can discuss the details, Europeans should be clear: Only when real rules apply to these new corporate giants can the world have a chance of becoming a better place for all.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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