BANGKOK: More than half a million users joined a new Facebook group created by a critic of the powerful Thai king after the social media company blocked its predecessor under pressure from the government.
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 said it was compelled to comply but would mount a legal challenge to the Thai government.
The tension came amid near daily youth-led protests against the government of a former military junta chief and unprecedented calls for reforms of the monarchy, which is illegal to insult in Thailand.
Hours before the restriction, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a self-exiled academic and prominent critic of the monarchy, set up a new group with a similar name that has gained over half a million members in one day.
"If you want to close it down again, then I'll set up another group. To promote freedom of expression, I would do it," Pavin told Reuters.
Pavin, who lives in Japan, created the original group in April, encouraging once-rare free discussion of the monarchy and royal family members, considered taboo subjects in Thailand.
Thailand's lese majeste laws forbid defaming the king with penalties of up to 15 years in prison, and often form the basis for requests to block or remove content on social media.
Thailand's digital minister said Facebook was at risk of violating a different law, the Computer Crime Act, in not acting on court orders attached to government requests to block content.
Facebook said it would challenge the government in court over the legality of the orders related to the group and would seek to have them revoked.
"Requests like this are severe, contravene international human rights law, and have a chilling effect on people's ability to express themselves," a company spokesperson said.
"We work to protect and defend the rights of all internet users and are preparing to legally challenge this request."
It said such "excessive government actions" undermined its business in Thailand.
(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Kay Johnson and Giles Elgood)