Google: Thai webmaster verdict 'threat' to Internet

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Chiranuch Premchaiporn was punished under Thailand's Computer Crimes Act

Editor of the popular Prachatai news website, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, smiles at the Criminal Court in Bangkok on May 30. Google branded her conviction on Wednesday for hosting a comment deemed insulting to Thailand's monarchy a "serious threat" to the Internet in the country

A Thai online editor was Wednesday handed a suspended jail term for failing to remove a comment critical of the revered monarchy on her website, prompting Google to issue a stark warning over Internet freedom.

Chiranuch Premchaiporn was found guilty of failing to speedily delete a post written by others deemed insulting to the royal family from her popular news website.

Judge Kampol Rungrat sentenced Chiranuch to eight months in prison, but suspended the jail term for a year, saying that she had cooperated with the court in Bangkok and had "never violated the law herself".

Analysts said the 44-year-old webmaster's suspended term is unlikely to herald a wider loosening of the kingdom's royal defamation laws, which critics decry as an assault on free speech, including online commentary.

In a rare and outspoken intervention late Wednesday, Google said Chiranuch's sentence had set a legal precedent which cramps companies hosting Internet platforms and poses a danger to web users.

"Today's guilty verdict for something somebody else wrote on her website is a serious threat to the future of the Internet in Thailand," a Google spokesman said in an emailed statement to AFP.

"Telephone companies are not penalised for things people say on the phone and responsible website owners should not be punished for comments users post on their sites."

Chiranuch was charged over 10 comments posted on the popular Prachatai news site in 2008.

Recognising she had never "violated the law herself" the court said she had removed nine of those posts quickly enough, but found the 20 days she had taken to remove one was in breach of the law.

"The defendant cannot deny responsibility for taking care of content on her website," the judge said, adding she was initially given a one-year jail term but that this was reduced to reflect her "useful" testimony to the court. The court fined Chiranuch 20,000 baht ($630).

The monarchy is a highly sensitive topic in politically turbulent Thailand. The 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is revered as a demi-god by many Thais, has been hospitalised since September 2009.

Critics say charges brought under Thailand's tough royal defamation laws are often politically motivated and amount to an assault on free speech.

The Internet has become one of the key battlegrounds for Thailand's complex political debates with social networks surging in popularity over the last several years as the opposing factions rose to prominence.

Tens of thousands of web pages have been removed from the Internet in recent years from for allegedly insulting the monarchy.

Speaking after the verdict, a smiling Chiranuch -- who throughout had denied the charges -- left open the possibility of an appeal over her conviction.

"I will consult with my lawyer to see whether or not I should appeal to confirm my innocence," she said, adding that she will "think hard" about re-opening the website's forum, which was closed following the charges.

Chiranuch's suspended sentence follows considerable domestic and foreign condemnation of Thailand's royal slur laws, but analysts said it would not mean fewer lese majeste prosecutions.

David Streckfuss, an independent analyst based in Thailand, said by finding her guilty the court had fired a warning shot to web users to say there will be "no more leeway" to what can be said about the monarchy online.

Scrutiny of the law has intensified since the death of a 62-year-old Thai man this month while serving a 20-year sentence for committing lese majeste.

On Tuesday, a petition signed by almost 27,000 people urging reform was submitted to parliament in the first mass action of its kind.

Amnesty International researcher Benjamin Zawacki welcomed the suspension of Chiranuch's jail term, but said the guilty verdict still infringed on freedom of expression.

"For political purposes an acquittal was simply not on the cards," he said. "The suspended sentence seems the most politically palatable way for the government to handle this."