Why is the Myanmar military blocking the internet? | Censorship News


Yangon, Burma – A few hours after the Burmese army seized power in a coup on February 1, it shut down the Internet. The blackout hampered the spread of information, as residents of Myanmar and around the world slowly learned that the military had declared a one-year state of emergency and toppled the civilian government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Far from being an emergency measure, however, Internet restrictions have become a feature of the short tenure of the generals in power.

Every night for more than two weeks, the military has imposed an Internet shutdown of 1am (6.30pm GMT) to 9am (02.30am GMT) across the country. At the same time, he also decided to grant himself sweeping powers to censor and arrest dissidents online. The regime has also banned access to websites, including popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The first overnight internet shutdown was imposed on February 6, the same day as the first mass protest.

Thousands of people took to the streets as disinformation spread via text messages, much of which was apparently designed to prevent protesters from assembling. A commonly shared message wrongly claimed that the protesters had been hired by the military to justify a harsher crackdown on the general population. Another falsely reported that Aung San Suu Kyi had been released.

But it was not until February 15 at 1 a.m. that the military government began its coordinated night shutdowns. By this time, mass protests were becoming more and more common across the country, unhindered by the slowdown in information. Theories abound as to why the military persisted in blackouts.

James Griffiths, author of The Great Firewall of China, said the decision to ban Facebook and Twitter was “not surprising” but that nighttime Internet shutdowns were “much stranger”.

“Such blocks are relatively easy to achieve, especially when the government controls ISPs [internet service providers] which in the case of a military junta, we have to assume that they are doing it physically even though they are not doing it legally, ”he said of social media censorship.

Griffiths said there “seems to be some merit in the idea” that the overnight shutdowns are linked to “the installation of new technology”. “Even then, though, it’s a bit confusing, given that Internet systems, including Internet backbones, are periodically upgraded around the world without this type of failure,” he continued. .

Soldiers have used increasing force against protesters with around 50 killed since coup a month ago, UN says [File: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA]

Human rights groups and international business organizations have come together to condemn measures taken by the military government to legally restrict the internet through a cybersecurity bill and a series of amendments to the law. electronic transactions.

‘Unlimited power’

The proposed cyber law would require all online service providers to keep all user data in Myanmar and give the government unlimited power to censor content or access user data, an onerous requirement for providers and a huge threat to human rights.

“As currently drafted, it requires Internet service providers to disclose user information to authorities at any time without justifiable reasons,” read a February 15 statement signed by eight chambers of commerce including the United States, the UK and Europe.

“The cybersecurity bill would hand over an army that has just staged a coup and is known to imprison critics with almost unlimited power to access user data, putting anyone who speaks out at risk,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Amid public outcry, the military government quietly amended the electronic transactions law on February 15, adding some provisions originally intended for the cybersecurity bill.

According to the non-governmental organization Free Expression Myanmar, the copied amendments provide for a prison sentence for disseminating “false information” and giving the authorities broad powers to intercept user data. It is not clear whether the military government is still considering moving forward with the cybersecurity bill or whether it is satisfied with the provisions of the electronic transactions law.

A regional telecommunications expert, who asked to comment anonymously due to the political sensitivity of the issue, said it was “possible” that the Internet shutdowns were linked to a new censorship regime.

“No one outside the junta knows for sure, [but] it is possible for the government to shut down parts of the network at night to install hardware to implement strict censorship protocols and this would be allowed by their new cybersecurity law, ”the expert said.

Another theory is that the shutdown was part of the military’s efforts to monitor the web for threats.

“What I’m thinking is that the government is trying to reduce the overall volume of data traffic in order to monitor this traffic for any perceived threats while still allowing businesses to stay online during office hours,” a- he declared.

The expert said that if the closures were linked to firewall projects in Myanmar, it would raise “existential questions about the future of investments” in Myanmar.

Griffiths says he thinks the generals “would prefer an outright blackout” but were reluctant to take such a step because of “the enormous economic costs”.

The military has already deployed this method of cover in western Myanmar, where it shut down the internet in eight townships for more than two years as it engaged in a brutal war with the Arakan army.

“An internet blackout would also completely alienate the type of middle-class Burmese who may be the greatest threat to the new regime, and who the junta will rely on to revive the economy,” he said. .

Disturbances

But night-time closures are already frustrating business circles, both foreign and domestic.

A local IT industry businessman, who asked to comment anonymously for security reasons, said many activities were disrupted, including schools that were running virtual classes from 9 a.m. morning.

Telenor has made a name for itself as Myanmar’s most transparent telecommunications company. Shortly after the coup, he said it was no longer possible to share the directives he was receiving from the authorities. [File: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA]

“These lessons had to be postponed. And like telcos [telecommunications companies] struggled to provide a transparent data service, teachers and students losing access to some online services such as Google Drive and Amazon Cloud, disrupted the flow, ”he said in an e- mail.

He said the cuts would be “quite disruptive” for any IT company offering offshore development in foreign countries.

“A lot of developers like to burn the midnight oil and work until 3-4 am, before they surrender. They prefer the silence and uninterrupted nature of nighttime coding. Now it has become impossible, ”he added.

Tatum Albertine, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar, said the group had received no explanation from the military for the closures, which also caused problems for foreign companies.

Albertine says blackouts are a nuisance for businesses that “rely on the Internet to communicate with corporate and regional offices, financial institutions, suppliers and customers who work across time zones around the world.” .

“The lack of access to telecommunications systems is a concern for the continuity of business operations. Not having regular internet access is likely to be a key area that foreign investors take into account when looking at Myanmar, ”said Albertine.

Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor has made a name for itself as the only transparent telecommunications company in Myanmar, providing regular updates on orders and guidance received from authorities, even those with which it was not. agreement.

On February 14, a few hours before the Internet shutdown, it ended.

“It is currently not possible for Telenor to disclose the guidance we receive from the authorities,” Telenor said in a statement, adding that it was “gravely concerned about this development”.

Military response to ongoing protests has become more violent, but protesters are not discouraged [Lynn Bo Bo/EPA]

In an email to Al Jazeera, Telenor spokeswoman Cathrine Stang Lund said the company continued to publicly stress that “the fundamental right of people to freedom of expression and access to information Should be respected and “protested against the proposed cybersecurity law”.

When asked if the company is considering withdrawing from Myanmar given recent developments, Lund said it is “assessing” the situation and is committed to protecting the safety of its employees and providing services. to its customers.

“We are concerned about the situation in Myanmar. We have seen the difference that access to communication technologies can make to reduce inequalities and contribute to inclusive growth, and we want to contribute to the progress of the country, ”she said.

If the military was hoping that the blackout and internet censorship would help cover up its growing brutality towards citizens who have taken to the streets to support their elected government, this has not happened.

As the blackout continued for an 18th night on Wednesday, video and graphic photos were shared around the world, depicting violent attacks on protesters and the use of live ammunition. At least 38 people have been killed, according to the UN special envoy to Myanmar.





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