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Thai minister says clampdown won't stop as Facebook plans to fight order

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s digital minister vowed no relent on Wednesday in a crackdown on social media content deemed illegal and said it was unlikely Facebook would follow through on plans to challenge an order to block access to a group critical of the Thai monarchy.

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The “Royalist Marketplace” group, which had over 1 million members, was blocked within Thailand late on Monday after the digital ministry threatened legal action against Facebook under the country’s Computer Crime Act.

Facebook FB.O said it was compelled to comply and would mount a legal challenge in court.

The tension comes amid near daily youth-led protests against the government of a former junta chief, during which some demonstrators have made unprecedented calls for reforms of the monarchy, which is illegal to insult in Thailand.

Meanwhile, a new group with a similar name created by Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a self-exiled academic and prominent critic of the monarchy, has amassed over 700,000 members in just two days.

“If they start a new group or do anything illegal again, we’ll need to act again. We’ll keep doing this no matter how many times it takes,” digital minister Puttipong Punnakanta said.

He said he was encouraged by Facebook’s compliance with a deadline to act on court orders, which were attached to government request to block content locally. He warned Facebook’s Thailand office of possible cybercrime charges if the orders were not observed.

“This time Facebook complied in blocking everything we flagged, which is why I don’t think Facebook will pursue legal action,” Puttipong said.

“We’re not bullies. We use Thai laws to protect Thai cyber sovereignty.”

Facebook caving to Thai government pressure set a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression online, said Rasha Abdul-Rahim of rights group Amnesty International.

“It’s welcome that Facebook is now planning legal action to challenge the government’s censorship demands, but the harm has already been done,” she said.

“The company should not have given in to the demands in the first place.”

Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Martin Petty

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