Brace Yourself For The Digital Counter-Revolution

The world has mostly embraced technological advances. But as fallout over the Facebook data-breach scandal suggests, the reaction could get nasty.

Testing virtual reality technology
Testing virtual reality technology
Jean-Marc Vittori


PARIS The revelations of data harvesting. The first fatal accident involving one of Uber's self-driving cars. European taxation of digital giants. Resistance against the digital revolution is growing, as evidenced most poignantly, perhaps, by reactions to the recent Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal.

The digital revolution is already changing tides. Initially, it had promised a better world, where knowledge and education would be free and accessible to all and the consumer would have an infinite range of choices. Businesses, for their part, would have the liberty to organize themselves as they see fit, and individuals would become better informed, better organized and better cared for. While this image is still true to a certain extent, the downsides of the revolution are looking increasingly grim.

Tomorrow, it could choose to kill you.

The circulation and processing of data at a historical scale is not only a sign of immense progress but also a source of major concern. As the digital revolution advances, we discover not only the progress it can make, but also the damage it can cause well beyond what the best science fiction writers had anticipated.

"Big brother is watching you," George Orwell wrote 70 years ago. Today, Big Brother creeps further into personal affairs and looms over your online purchases and votes. Tomorrow, it could choose to kill you, by deciding, for example, that you are too old to receive medical care, or that it would be better to direct your car into a ravine than into the school bus bearing down on you.

A big data warning from a pole in Lyon, France Photo: ev

This year at the World Economic Forum, which has long been passionate about information technology, the digital industry was compared to that of the... tobacco industry. The aversion is only made stronger by the vast breadth that digital technology covers and its impact on society as a whole on both an intimate and global scale.

Our personal data is manipulated to convince us to buy and even vote, putting our identities at stake. Algorithms make choices that are so opaque that they inevitably trigger suspicious discrimination, threatening principles of justice. Competition is jostled by the emergence of new players. Digital giants have designed their architecture to legally minimize their taxes, thus weakening the state. In the meantime, automation is advancing and will displace tens of millions of jobs. Ultimately, it is the social contract that risks being swept away.

The digital revolution goes much further than the automobile revolution.​

It remains to be seen how exactly a digital revolt will play out. Perhaps companies will be knocked off their pedestals or disappear in a storm. It's tempting to draw parallels to the way people oppose globalization. After all, both have had similar effects. Employment rates, for example, have been affected so much that economists often find it difficult to distinguish which revolution to blame.

Politically, though, they are two different beasts. A candidate can win an election by promising to close the borders, but she will struggle to do so by promising to ban the iPhone.

In many ways, the path of the digital industry seems to resemble that of the auto industry. At first, the auto industry's rise was a tremendous lever of progress and freedom, but gradually we discovered its negative effects. More than a million men, women and children die every year on the road and tens of millions more lives are shortened by vehicle emissions. In fact, the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is threatening the entire planet.

Although automobile manufacturers have worked to improve the safety of their vehicles, they haven't shown much interest in limiting the damage caused by their products. It was the government that imposed laws requiring seat belts, setting speed limits, creating standards for greenhouse gas emission, and limiting access to city centers.

In the end, the digital revolution goes much further than the automobile revolution. It is nothing less than the most powerful economic engine of the 21st century. And so it will be even more difficult to contain. Get ready to duck, because the fight is just getting started.

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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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