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Burma's Upcoming Telecom Revolution Will Probably Not Bring Internet Freedom

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, May 20 2013

Yangon, Burma, via Wikipedia

Burma (Myanmar) is on the threshold of an Internet revolution, but Human Rights Watch has warned multi-national companies planning to start operating in the country to proceed with caution, or risk trampling Burmese citizens' rights.

The Burmese government opened the country's telecom sector to multinationals in January, but a recent report from Human Rights Watch points out that important regulations and rights protections have yet to follow. A new telecommunications law is forthcoming in June, but an early draft viewed by Human Rights Watch in March did include provisions permitting surveillance and censorship. Unless foreign companies pressure the Burmese government to bring their laws up to international standards, says Human Rights Watch, they risk being culpable or complicit in these activities.

The 24 page report released May 19 by the Human Rights Watch organization, “Reforming Telecommunications in Burma: Human Rights and Responsible Investment in Mobile and the Internet,” details how to invest responsibly and promote Internet and mobile freedoms in Burma.

Internet and mobile penetration rates in Burma are some of the lowest in the world, with some estimates putting Internet access as low as .2 percent and 1 percent mobile penetration (although other, more recent estimates put mobile penetration at 5 to 10 percent). Still, the Burmese government wants to reach 50 percent mobile penetration by 2015, so the country really is on the brink of a telecommunications explosion. Human Rights Watch wants to ensure that explosion is in the citizens's, and not the government's, interest.

The Human Rights Watch message recalls Eric Schmidt's words following his visit to Burma in March. In a blog post he wrote:

As the police state has withdrawn, always present religious tensions have erupted with burning of homes and some murders. With popular support, the government then responded with the Army to restore order. In the same way, we are entering a dangerous period for the Internet in Myanmar. What happens when a religious group falsely claims damages from others.. will the Army be sent in too? The country cannot even agree on a press freedoms law for the newspapers.”

Those were his words of warning to the Western world. To students in Rangoon, he said, “The Internet will make it impossible to go back. . . the Internet, once in place, guarantees communication and empowerment becomes the law and practice of your country.”

Unless it is put in place with repressive mechanisms for surveillance and censorship built into the system. In the next few months, probably within the year, the infrastructure and laws will be laid down and determine the future of the Internet in Burma one way or the other.

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