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OpenNet Initiative Burma Report: Research Finds that Burma Implements One of the Most Restrictive Regimes of Internet Control

Cambridge, MA - The university-based OpenNet Initiative (ONI) today released “Internet Filtering in Burma in 2005,” a report that documents the degree and extent to which the government of Burma controls the information environment in which its citizens live, including websites, blogs, email, and online discussion forums.

Drawing from technical, legal, and political sources, ONI’s research finds that the Burmese state seeks to maintain the capability to conduct surveillance of communication methods such as e-mail, and to block users from viewing Web sites of political opposition groups, organizations working for democratic change in Burma, and pornographic material.  Burma’s on-line restrictions mirror off-line regulation implemented by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), a group of military officials who maintain authoritarian control over the state.

Burma’s system combines costly Internet access to Burma’s citizens and software-based filtering techniques with broad, vague laws containing harsh penalties to significantly limit the materials Burma’s citizens can access online:

  • Individual dial-up subscribers may only access state-monitored email and the country’s Intranet, a small collection of mostly government and business Web sites hosted by respective Burmese authorities and companies.
  • Opportunities for anonymous communications are hampered by the state’s ban on free email sites such as Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail, enforced through filtering software obtained from the open source DansGuardian project and purchased from U.S.-based vendor Fortinet. (Fortinet denies that it directly sold such software to the regime, while an February 2005 article in a Burmese newspaper features a picture of the company’s local sales director presenting a gift to Burma’s prime minister at a ceremony commemorating the sale.)
  • Citizens who want to access the World Wide Web and who do not have individual subscriptions can only do so from Internet cafes in Rangoon and Mandalay. While providing expanded access to all those who can afford it, cafes have rates (around US$1.50 per hour in 2003) that are still expensive for the average Burmese.  Anonymous Internet use is impossible; cybercafé licenses require that patrons register their name, identification number, and address to gain access.
  • Internet content is also regulated by the 2000 Web Regulations, which prohibits any content that is “directly or indirectly detrimental to the interests of the Union of Myanmar.”
  • Economic factors play a large role in limiting Internet access.  Establishing a broadband connection with Burma’s main ISP, state-run Bagan Cybertech, costs US$1,300, a prohibitive sum in a state where the average annual income is US$225 per capita.
  • The 1996 Computer Science Development Law requires that all network-ready computers, as well as fax machines, be registered with the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs (MPT) prior to importation, possession, or use. Failure to register a computer or a network carries a prison sentence of 7-15 years and a possible fine.

Burma’s system of Internet controls places the country among the world’s most restrictive Internet regimes, and it appears to offer the clearest example yet of a Western company offering filtering technology that permits censorship of political speech to an authoritarian government for use upon its populace.  The combination of expensive access, harsh laws, and software-based filtering makes the Internet largely a state-controlled space in Burma.

The full ONI Burma Report

Statements from ONI’s Report Authors:

In a country where owning an unlicensed fax machine can result in 15 years in prison, and where the state security services routinely read your e-mail, it’s not surprising to find that Internet access and content are highly controlled in Burma.  ONI’s research shows that Burma’s authoritarian regime bolsters its surveillance capabilities by blocking Web-based e-mail services, and employs draconian laws to suppress political dissent.  The country’s purchase of a new, sophisticated, American-made Web filtering product indicates that on-line censorship is likely to get worse for Burma’s citizens.  The Internet situation in Burma demonstrates that authoritarian states are committed to — and succeeding at — establishing control over the Internet, a space once thought impervious to governments.

- Derek Bambauer, Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet & Society

While it is not surprising that a country under military rule attempts to stifle freedom of speech and access to information online, what is surprising is that the tools used by Burma to do so are provided by the knowledge and expertise of Silicon Valley's best and brightest.  As with an increasing number of other states where basic human rights are denied, such as Iran, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates, the leaders of Burma have turned to western commercial technologies -- in this case, the U.S. company Fortinet -- to do the job of censorship and surveillance.   There was a time, not that long ago, when the Internet's greatest entrepreneurs focused their talents on unleashing freedom of speech and access to information through technological innovation.  In the case of Burma, regrettably, those entrepreneurial talents are being exploited by a military regime to do precisely the opposite.

- Ronald Deibert, Director of the Citizen Lab, University of Toronto

Burma is yet another example of the increasingly clear correlation between states with poor human rights records and states that censor content on the Internet," said John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. "The fear is that as the citizens of developing countries gain access for the first time to the Internet, they will be met not with openness and opportunity, but by filtering and surveillance. In the long run, though, states will find that they can't keep a lid on the Internet's democratizing potential forever.

- John Palfrey, Executive Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society

Although Burma has switched to a commercial filtering product, Fortinet, it is the first country in which ONI has seen an open source software, DansGuardian, deployed as a national filtering mechanism. The websites of human rights groups, newspapers critical of the government and those supporting the Karen people, as well as Aung San Suu Kyi, are blocked in Burma along with most popular webmail services.

- Nart Villeneuve, Director of Technical Research, Citizen Lab, Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto

Companies chartered in a free society ought to respect some limit on rendering assistance to authoritarian regimes’ censorship of basic speech.  Here it seems that an American company’s software is being used to filter political and social expression to the Burmese populace, and at least one in-country news account shows the company’s local sales director feting the sale of Fortinet firewall products to the government there.

- Jonathan Zittrain, Chair in Internet Governance and Regulation, Oxford University

ONI is a collaborative partnership between the University of Toronto, Harvard University, Oxford University, and the University of Cambridge. For more information about the OpenNet Initiative, please visit ONI’s website: http://www.opennetinitiative.net

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