Myanmar Connected? Internet Governance Capacity Building in Post-Authoritarian Contexts

Since 2011 Myanmar’s internet infrastructure has seen unprecedented growth. In this blog post, IPO Affiliate Andrea Calderaro explains the implications of this massive expansion by looking at both infrastructure and legislation.

Almost 3 years have passed since the government of Myanmar initiated its connectivity building plan, in the context of an unprecedented period of political reforms. As detailed in the recently published paper, Digitalizing Myanmar: Connectivity Developments in Political Transitions, Myanmar is currently witnessing an extremely rapid process of constructing connectivity – both from an infrastructural and policy perspective. Just before the launch of this ambitious process, only 0.98% of the population was connected to the Internet, and 2.3% had a mobile phone, usable only via weak mobile infrastructure limited to the main urban areas (2011 figures).

Moreover, in a country that has until recently demonstrated continued lack of respect for the freedom of expression, the construction of connectivity infrastructure has raised concerns about the respect for human rights, notably the freedom of expression and right to privacy. In this context, it is of particular interest to scrutinize the development of the regulatory and policy framework aimed at securing basic digital rights in the connectivity sector.

Today, a network of mobile towers is widely spread over the country, and newly established international operators have launched new services, counting more than 20 million mobile subscribers and securing mobile internet connectivity to 30% of the population. This tremendous growth within such a limited timeframe suggests that Myanmar is the country with the fastest connectivity building process ever seen worldwide. However, a lot of work has yet to be done from a regulatory and policy perspective.

Lawful Interception

In 2014 the Myanmar Post and Telecommunication (MPT) released a new telecom law aimed at setting the standards of the national telecom market. However, some issues are not addressed in this law yet, such as citizens’ digital rights of privacy and data retention. In particular, it does not set any limitations for the government and telecom operators to intercept communication among their customers. In response to criticism from various key actors, the government announced the imminent release of regulations, especially pertaining to protecting citizens’ privacy. However, besides the announcement, the law has not yet been released, shedding doubt on the actual intention to do so.

Cybercrime law

Regulations on cybercrime are included in the Electronic Transaction Law (ETL) released in 2004, before the period of political reform and efforts to improve connectivity. In October 2013, the ETL was revised, but the definition of cybercrime has remained vague. This makes it easy to characterize many online behaviours as cybercrime, and therefore punishable. An entirely new ETL is necessary in order to clarify the boundaries between crime and the right to freely use connectivity, and avoid a misleading use of the law and consequent unjustified persecutions.

Improving the regulatory framework to secure a free and safe internet

The mobile network is developing together with internet infrastructure, which the Myanmar Post and Telecommunication (MPT) fully controls in different ways. Myanmar does not host any Internet Exchange Points (IXs) as such. However, the peering function is played by a government-controlled national gateway which keeps the data flowing domestically and maintains Myanmar independent from the Thai, Malaysian or Chinese IXPs, functioning de facto as an IX. By controlling this national gateway, the government also has the capacity to track all domestic data flows, exposing the national internet infrastructure to risks such as data filtering and violation of digital privacy. The potential new Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that are attempting to enter the Myanmar broadband market will have to face this situation. The government is therefore called on to remove this control and build new IXs. However, this has not yet happened, rendering citizens’ privacy safety vulnerable on the emerging internet infrastructure. In March 2014 the MPT joined the SEA-ME-WE-5 consortium which, with its 100Gbs technology, will significantly increase the connectivity capability within the next 2 years. Such infrastructure will be owned and controlled by the Myanmar Government, and new potential ISPs will have to offer their services though the Government. This situation raises new concerns about the development of an open communication market and a secure national internet infrastructure.

Myanmar has gone through the fastest connectivity building process ever seen. So far, the process has been successful in developing a telecom market and connectivity infrastructure from the bottom up in such a limited time frame. However, major work still must be done from a regulatory and policy perspective. As pointed out, there are still plenty of issues for Myanmar to deal with in order to create a safer internet infrastructure, and secure citizens’ digital rights. With the outcome of the latest national election, a new government has been appointed, and is expected to reform legislation to decrease its control over the entire communication infrastructure. These initiatives are required in order to improve telco and ISPs services, and secure citizens’ digital rights.

Andrea Calderaro is a Lecturer in International Relations at Cardiff University. His research centers on Internet and International Affairs, with a particular focus on internet governance, telecom policies, ICTs for development, digital rights and freedoms, and the role of the EU in the global internet policy debate. As an affiliate with the IPO, he is currently researching national internet policy development in the context of his broader work on internet governance capacity building in Myanmar. He serves as Editor of the “Digital Technologies and Global Politics” Book Series at Rowman&Littlefield, as Chair of the ECPR Internet & Politics standing group, and as a member of the Global Internet Policy Observatory’s Advisory Group at the European Commission. He holds a PhD and M.Phil in Social and Political Sciences from the European University Institute.

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