Law in the Internet Society

Internet Freedom in Burma

-- By StephanieLane - 23 Dec 2012


I spent my 1L summer (2011) working for an organization in Thailand called Burma Lawyers Council (BLC) that works to promote human rights, democracy, and rule of law in Burma. The BLC was founded and staffed largely by members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) who had been elected to parliament in the 1990 general elections but fled the country after the ruling party refused to recognize the election results. During that summer, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the “democratic” descendent of the military junta that had ruled Burma since 1962, was beginning its self-proclaimed move towards democracy. The general attitude of members of BLC was one of skepticism.

Legal Background: The Internet as a Source of Oppression

During the summer, I worked with the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) in their attempts to appeal the convictions of Burmese Video Journalists (VJs) who had been tortured and jailed for their work. Among the charges leveled against them were charges brought under the Electronic Transactions Law, which prohibited activity that used “electronic transactions technology” to commit an act “detrimental to the security of the state…community peace or tranquility…national solidarity…or national economy and culture.” This statute was broadly applied to cover the activities of VJs who used Gmail to send news reports of domestic events to DVB in Thailand for placement on their website. The video journalists’ convictions under the Electronic Transactions Law were emblematic of the USDP’s tight control over the internet.

Over the last few years, amidst an array of liberal reforms, the government has released many political prisoners, including the VJs imprisoned under the Electronic Transactions Law. I was curious to explore whether, and to what extent, the political liberalization has extended to internet freedom.

The Internet Amidst Political Reform

In both 2011 and 2012, Freedom House labeled Burma “Not Free” in its Freedom on the Net report. In 2012, Reporters without Borders has listed Burma as an “enemy of the internet.” In the past year the USDP has taken some steps towards freeing the internet. For example, a number of previously blocked websites have been unblocked, including YouTube? , BBC, Reuters, and DVB. Despite these reforms, the internet is still largely controlled by the government, which owns the two main ISPs and retains control over international connections to the internet (Id.).

Though the release of the DVB reporters is a positive move towards liberalization, the laws under which they were convicted, including the Electronic Transactions Law, remain on the books. In fact, the government announced its intention to continue to use the open-ended law at its discretion. Although there has been some talk of repealing or reforming the law, no steps have been taken to do so.

Although parliament has passed (but not yet enacted) a new Media Law, the details of which remain secret, the USDP is keeping in place the legal structure that gives it the power to arbitrarily restrict internet freedom and severely punish internet users.

Although no journalists were jailed in 2012, for the first time since 1996, Sithu Zeya, one of the DVB journalists released this year, was granted release on the condition that he abide by all laws, including the Electronic Transaction Law, or risk being sent back to jail to fulfill his sentence. The regimes apparent willingness to continue to use draconian laws to restrict internet freedom

Before Freedom, Access

Currently, only 1% of the Burmese population has access to the internet, mainly through one of about 500 internet cafes in the country. The access they do have is slow and prohibitively expensive. The government carefully monitors internet usage at cyber cafes by requiring the operators to record the names and addresses of customers, take periodic screenshots of their computers, and arrange the computers themselves to restrict privacy. Even if the cautious trend towards internet freedom continues, without expanded access new limited freedom won’t drastically change the essential characteristics of the internet in Burma.

Cracks in the Floodgate

Although the use of circumvention measures is banned in Burma, even before the changes this year internet users were able to circumvent measures restricting access to content. Despite extremely low internet penetration is still, there are indications that internet freedom is picking up momentum.

The use of Facebook to protest the Myitsone dam project in 2011, which would have provided 90% of the electricity generated to China, is one such indication. Facebook users in Burma used the site to share information, news links, video files and post comments. The use of social media to protest a government project was a new development in the Burmese political landscape, making a company that is frequently berated for its abysmal privacy record in countries with relatively free, open internet a force of democratic change.

Considering the general design of the internet, which was created to be free and open and technological advances that allow for circumventing restrictions on the internet, the small changes the government has made towards allowing internet freedom may prove difficult to reverse. Even with these positive changes, the fact that restrictive laws, including the Electronic Transactions Law, remain on the books leaves the government with latent power to crack down on internet freedom. Though a crackdown might ultimately prove ineffective, until broad legal reforms are enacted, the fact that the old laws remain on the books encourage self-censorship and cast doubt on the sincerity of the USDP.

This is a useful summary of the situation. Because events move rapidly, it cannot help but become obsolete in a short time. A useful revision, while bringing the summary up to date, would prune it back very substantially, in order to develop an idea less perishable than one day's tour d'horizon.

One of the most complex phenomena for students of culture at the end of the 20th century was the process of nationalist modernization through which decolonizing societies passed, at what then seemed a very rapid pace. Now the transformation of all human culture by the Net is occurring in overlapping time with other forms of social transformation, no longer associated with the end of Euro-Atlantic worldwide colonization, but rather with the rise of new forces that replace it.

Transitions like the one now going on in Burma are therefore rife with anthropological opportunities, which lawyers, whose subject is social power, should want to see taken up by the best interpreters around. It seems to me, reflecting on what you've written, that there were such opportunities available here. Roads not taken, however, so far as this draft went.

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r3 - 23 Aug 2014 - 19:33:51 - EbenMoglen
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