International over-the-top (OTT) content providers have been the bane of Thai regulator National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission’s (NBTC) existence over the past few months.

The supposedly independent regulatory body seems to be obsessed with finding ways to curb the menace of internet giants including Facebook, Google, YouTube and Alibaba. In early April it boldly suggested imposing some kind of bandwidth fee on the consumption of OTT services, requiring OTT players to have an operating licence to run a business in Thailand and even making them pay a value-added service tax for transactions by local merchants.

At the end of May, the regulator went one step further: mulling setting up a “control list” of the top-100 content creators for OTT platforms “to establish industry standards and a level playing field”. The head of the broadcasting committee, Natee Sukonrat, was quoted as saying “users on social media who influence public opinion will have to be reined in”.

These moves, of course, have all been all done in the name of looking after the country’s mobile operators, which have been forced to boost their infrastructure spending to keep up with soaring data usage driven by OTT apps. The regulator claims the surge in OTT consumption led to a “drastic increase” in revenue for international internet players.

NBTC secretary general Takorn Tantasith said the agency was planning an open forum in September with mobile operators in the region and OTT service providers “to figure out proper ways and measures to govern the OTT industry and ensure fairness in the telecoms industry”, according to a report in Bangkok Post.

Soft-peddling censorship
However, what on the surface may seem to be an effort to create a more level playing field for the mobile players could also be seen as a thinly disguised attempt to give the regulator the power to more easily monitor and censor content the government is finding difficult to regulate.

Just a month ago the NBTC, after unsuccessfully trying to pressure overseas internet companies to remove allegedly illegal content, proposed imposing fines on those which don’t swiftly comply with take-down requests in a bid to avoid taking cumbersome legal action (its demand for Facebook to remove webpages failed after the social media giant refused, claiming they do not violate its “community standards”).

The widely-criticised proposals are merely a backhanded move to bypass current legal processes and give the regulator the authority to demand the removal of content the military-run government considers illegal without waiting for a court order, which the government has complained is time consuming.

As the NBTC commissioners were busy drafting a new regulatory framework for OTT providers, law companies and consultants stepped forward to remind the Thai government the internet is borderless. To date, no country has been able to regulate OTT services, and the NBTC lacks the jurisdiction to make international players comply with the proposed regulations, particularly setting up local operations and paying tax, as there are no legal provisions in Thailand to back up such a plan.

Undeterred, the regulator said in early July that while it would drop the plan to register OTT players for tax purposes, it would push ahead to replace “several weak points” in the framework and come up with a revised proposal in 30 days. The NBTC board will vote on the new framework after a 60-day public consultation.

And now the junta’s ominously named National Reform Steering Assembly this month approved an 84-page social media censorship proposal, which would require such things as fingerprint and facial scanning just to top-up a prepaid plan, all in an effort to be able to identify those posting content to OTT services. The push for fingerprint and facial recognition is in addition to existing requirements for all SIM users to register with their 13-digit national IDs.

Commentators say the stringent rules are similar to those in use in China and Iran.

Different path
In the midst of the government’s censorship push, an Amdocs executive visiting Thailand pointed to the often ignored view that telcos should work with the OTT crowd and see them as an opportunity to increase revenue as they transform their operations to cope with the digital services revolution.

Stephane Cudennec told Bangkok Post operators need to find a win-win business model rather than see the OTT players as mere competitors.

However, for an agency which a year ago spent THB7 million ($59,000) developing a redundant registration system for people accessing mobile banking services, trust is a scarce commodity (operators were required to use the fingerprint ID app, designed to complement the existing ID verification system, by mid-May).

As the junta moves well into its third year in power, the NBTC is no doubt under pressure to move away from relying on self-censorship by Thailand’s ISPs and telecoms operators and take a more proactive approach to safeguarding the nation’s institutions from potentially damaging online content.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.