Update: February 25, 2020 — As internet remains unstable in Myanmar, and the military continues to tighten its grip on power, protesters are creating, sharing, and translating tools to help keep themselves safe while organizing. However, many of these digital resources are vulnerable to military interference.
“You have to remember that no tech is hack-proof, no mechanism is completely secure. Everything has insecurity built in,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia-Pacific Policy Director and Senior International Counsel at Access Now in an interview with Rest of World. “What we’re concerned about is that, [while] we know about the internet disruptions, we don’t know about surveillance.”
With the threat of military surveillance ever present, Access Now has joined civil society organizations from across the globe in calling on the United Nations Security Council and UN member states to urgently institute a coordinated, global arms embargo on Myanmar in response to the military coup. Any sale or transfer of military-related equipment, including dual-use and surveillance equipment, could provide the means to further repress the people of Myanmar in violation of international humanitarian and human rights law.
The military must not be allowed to use ICT tools to curtail people’s rights, or to facilitate their repression of peaceful protests. The Myanmar military’s ability to publish calls for violence against protesters via social media is becoming a critical issue. In turn, the military has been banned from Facebook and Instagram, after having its main page deleted by Facebook last weekend.
“We are banning the remaining Myanmar military (“Tatmadaw”) and military-controlled state and media entities from Facebook and Instagram, as well as ads from military-linked commercial entities,” said the social media giant in a statement on February 24. “We’re continuing to treat the situation in Myanmar as an emergency and we remain focused on the safety of our community, and the people of Myanmar more broadly.”
Update: February 22, 2020 — Troubling reports are continuing to flock in from Myanmar, stating the daily 01:00 to 09:00 local time shutdowns are still regularly being implemented, and that an internet shutdown was scheduled for today, February 22, from 01:00 until 12:00 noon local time in the capital, Yangon.
I have confirmation from a credible source that the internet will be shutdown in Yangon from 0100-MIDDAY tomorrow. The rest of the country will be restricted 0100-0900. It comes ahead of what’s anticipated to be the biggest day of anti-coup protests yet#Myanmar #InternetShutdown
— Freya Cole (@freya_cole) February 21, 2021
Update: February 17, 2020 — Millions of people in Myanmar continue to be affected by unreliable internet access. Authorities have periodically plunged the nation into darkness by shutting down the internet between 01:00 and 09:00 local time on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday this week (February 15 — 17). In effect, this has created a nightly communications black hole that facilitates abuse by, and impunity for, the military junta. Despite this, thousands of protesters marched against the coup today across major cities.
Network measurement reports indicate that internet traffic throttling continues to be observed every day even after the scheduled shutdowns.
UPDATE: #Myanmar / to #Feb17 12:30 local (GMT+6.5H):
. Like clock-work, #Myanmar came back online again this morning at 9am
. But as we keep noting, speed throttling continues, challenging audio+video uploads👇
🔴MON ~ 1am-9am
🔴TUE ~ 1am-9am
🔴WED ~ 1am-9am@abcnews @BBCWorld pic.twitter.com/rNJXUHdGVT
— Monash IP Observatory (@IP_Observatory) February 17, 2021
Rumours are emerging that the newly drafted “cybersecurity” bill may no longer be tabled, with the military having already amended — or seeking to imminently amend — the Electronic Transactions Law instead. Access Now is working to confirm development, and review the amended content.
February 15, 2020 — Breaking: Reports are emerging today, February 15, that another internet shutdown has been ordered for 01:00 — 09:00 local time tomorrow, February 16.
On February 1, a sudden military coup took place in Myanmar. In the weeks following, as people protested, scrambled for information, and attempted to document the events unfurling, authorities flexed their power by arbitrarily shutting down and reinstating the internet, and blocking social media platforms. The latest reported nation-wide shutdown was implemented overnight, and lifted only today, February 15. It accompanied increased military presence, and use of force against demonstrators.
“Censorship and military control over free speech is increasing in Myanmar, as access to information and communication is decreasing dramatically,” said Felicia Anthonio, Campaigner and #KeepItOn Lead at Access Now. “The military continues to weaponize the use of internet shutdowns and censorship in order to quell protests and silence dissent. This is unacceptable and a flagrant violation of human rights laws.”
Last week, in another blow to human rights, the military introduced the draft of an alarming new “cybersecurity” bill with the potential to criminalize many normal acts of online expression, and dampen the efforts of those seeking to provide digital security assistance to civil society and democratically-elected political leaders in the country (see an unofficial translation). This is an incredibly dangerous move, and the international community has a responsibility to stop it in its tracks.
“Myanmar’s draft cybersecurity bill is already instilling a fear of surveillance and being persecuted for what you say and do online. Everyone from journalists to digital security providers to civil society actors — and all those in between — are at risk,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia-Pacific Policy Director and Senior International Counsel at Access Now. “The gagging of telecom and ICT firms from being able to report on government orders concerning internet shutdowns, web censorship, or user surveillance is very concerning. Given the evolving situation and suppression of free media on the ground, the ability of telecom firms to provide information about the government directives they receive is key”.
Shutdowns and blockings
Access Now has been working closely with local partners and concerned organizations across the world, and although the situation is constantly changing, a number of key disruptions can be confirmed by the #KeepItOn community:
- February 14: Internet was blocked until the morning of February 15. With military presence increasing overnight.
- February 13: The websites of thirty Myanmar news outlets, a human rights website, and an app providing information on the coronavirus were blocked.
- February 3: The internet was restored across much of Myanmar, including in Rakhine and Chin where targeted internet shutdowns ran since June 2019. However, the military ordered telecos to block Facebook — including Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger — until midnight, February 7, cutting communication for 22 million people.
- February 1: Internet and voice connectivity across several states were disrupted. Substantial drops in regular internet traffic were experienced, followed by confirmed reports of internet shutdowns and disruptions.
The Telenor Group, a Norwegian telco operating in Myanmar publicly listed the government directives they received, citing most recently an order to block IP addresses and URLs yesterday, February 14. However, this transparency has come to an end as the company stated it could no longer disclose this information. This increases the difficulty to confirm disruptions.
Authorities are attempting to further expand digital repression through a new cybersecurity bill that was circulated within the last 48 hours, with demands for stakeholder input by next week. Problems with the present cybersecurity bill include:
- The “hacking” definition is very loosely characterized and could be used against legitimate activity in journalism, digital security, and network measurement;
- It requires the military approval of private sector cybersecurity teams, at a time when independent digital security access to Myanmar users, journalists, and democratic actors is crucial; and
- It proposes requirements for online service providers to be licensed; effectively outlining an Internet Content Provider (ICP) license framework — similar to what exists in China.
Civil society and the international community
On February 12, the United Nations held the 29th special session of the Human Rights Council on the human rights implications of the crisis in Myanmar, with civil society voicing concern over the escalating situation. Thirty-nine states co-sponsored the Human rights implications of the crisis in Myanmar resolution, which “calls for the immediate and permanent lifting of restrictions on the internet, telecommunications and social media.”
On February 6, Myanmar civil society organizations published an open letter appealing to internet service providers to ensure, and uphold human rights — a call Access Now vehemently supports.
Demands for change
Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition joins the increasing calls for action from around the globe, specifically urging the military in Myanmar to:
- Put an end to the ongoing disruption of the internet, and restore access to all blocked social media platforms and websites;
- Allow internet service providers to operate freely by providing open, reliable, and secure access to the internet and digital communications platforms;
- Withdraw the draft cybersecurity bill and halt all processes leading to its adoption and implementation with immediate effect; and
- Uphold the fundamental rights of the people of Myanmar, including peaceful assembly and association, freedom of opinion and expression, and access to information.
Sanctions and oversight of businesses operating in Myanmar
Access Now calls on all governments imposing restrictions and sanctions in response to the coup to ensure civil society, members of civilian political parties, and the people of Myanmar alike have access to telecom and ICT services. Sanctions and further restrictions must not prevent the everyday people protesting the coup from using communication tools, or accessing digital security products and services to secure their communications and guard against the junta’s surveillance.
All companies and investors transacting or operating in Myanmar must review their operations for their potential human rights impacts. Relevant governments — whether the United States, EU member states, the UK, Singapore, India, South Korea, Japan, or others — have an obligation to ensure that the businesses they regulate undertake such reviews immediately.