Information & Communication Technology

Telenor and Ooredoo enter Myanmar

Commentary, 27 June 2013

By Lucy Purdon, Policy Officer, Privacy International; Research Fellow, IHRB

When my colleagues went to Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon in March last year, they found that their smartphones were useless there, since the local telecom operators did not have any arrangement with international carriers. As a result, they had to rent mobile phones locally, with local SIM cards. Even after the suspension of sanctions, the story was generally the same.

Local residents told them how a few years earlier a SIM card alone would cost hundreds of dollars, making a mobile phone – so essential for the daily lives of the rich and the poor in many parts of the world– inaccessible to everyone except the wealthy in Myanmar.

All that is about to change with the announcement of successful bids for the two telecommunications licences to provide fixed and mobile telecommunications services to Myanmar. The two winners are Telenor and Ooredoo. This long-awaited announcement marks a further step in Myanmar’s emergence from isolation after decades of military rule and recent lifting of sanctions by the United States, European Union, and other leading western economies.

Telenor says it is aware of its human rights responsibilities as a global company and it has developed internal policies to deal with human rights challenges. Ooredoo has a corporate social responsibility strategy, believes in access for all, and has undertaken philanthropic activities, but it does not appear to have a human rights policy.

The development of the ICT sector in Myanmar will undoubtedly bring positive impacts in terms of access to information, communication and economic growth. Aside from North Korea, Myanmar is the world’s last untapped international business market. Over a billion dollars of investments to improve network infrastructure and access are needed if the goal of 50% Internet penetration by 2015 is to be achieved. This is an ambitious target as current Internet penetration is estimated at less than 1% and mobile penetration is estimated at around 5%. The cost of a SIM card in Myanmar is still around $112, way beyond the reach for most people.

As well as the need to build and update infrastructure, Myanmar also needs to update, draft, and in some instances repeal laws that govern telecommunications. Just as telecommunications technology enables people to connect with one another easily, it also makes it easy for governments to impose surveillance on users. To some extent, the companies that bid for licences took a leap of faith, because a draft telecommunications law has not yet been enacted – it is supposed to happen in July 2013 - but as draft laws are extremely difficult to obtain it is challenging for business and civil society to know what lies ahead. In effect, Telenor and Ooredoo are beginning their operations without a finalised legal framework. It is therefore extremely important that the companies undertake due diligence on human rights concerns, as recommended in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. They will need to identify and assess possible negative impacts on human rights, and have plans in place to act and mitigate these identified risks, so that their operations are consistent with international human rights standards.

For example, the military government was brutal in cracking down on dissent and strictly controlled the media. There was widespread surveillance; personal access to the Internet was restricted; censorship was extensive; and websites and online content were filtered. The network was regularly disconnected and political dissidents, human rights defenders and journalists risked long prison sentences for expressing opinions critical of the government. The 2007 so-called Saffron Revolution was one of the early incidents revealing the power of the Internet, as activists uploaded photographs and mobile phone footage of the military’s violent suppression of Buddhist monks leading peaceful demonstrations against the government. When Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008, the Government went to great lengths to restrict news coverage, including sentencing comedian Zarganar to 35 years in prison for inter alia “public order offences” under four actions of the criminal code and a violation of the Electronic Act after the police found him speaking to foreign media about the millions of people left homeless by Nargis.

While the new government has stopped pre-censorship, and there is seemingly less surveillance, organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Open Tech Fund are concerned that restrictive laws enacted by the previous regime are still on the books and can be applied to the use of the new technology and to the network infrastructure being set up. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report it is still illegal to own an unregistered fax machine or modem or to post anything on the Internet the government might deem “detrimental to the security of the country”. The provisions of these laws are vaguely worded and overly broad and as they remain on the books, could be open to abuse by the government. The authorities could at any time exert control over the new telecommunications infrastructure and resume practices of widespread surveillance, network disconnection, censorship and arrest and imprisonment of dissidents and journalists.

Given the absence of a legal framework for the ICT sector in Myanmar, it is important that these companies use all the resources available to avoid contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities, and address such impacts where they occur. In particular, given similar challenges arising elsewhere in the world, companies should anticipate government requests for network disconnection, user information and surveillance and ensure they have the plans and processes in place to prevent or at least mitigate to the greatest extent possible the potential negative human rights impacts arising from such requests. These are difficult issues in any market and no less so in Myanmar so preventive planning and consultation with human rights experts are important steps.

We at IHRB have been engaged for some time with the issue of corporate responsibility to respect human rights in the ICT sector. IHRB and Shift recently wrote and published a Guide to Implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights for the European Commission. The Guide offers practical advice for companies in the ICT sector on how to implement the corporate responsibility to respect human rights in day-to-day business operations through step-by-step guidance. IHRB has also embarked on a multi-year project with the Danish Institute for Human Rights to help ensure that existing and new investments in Myanmar are consistent with international human rights standards and best practices. At the core of this project is the establishment of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB) to provide information to companies in all sectors of their corporate legal obligations and responsibilities. IHRB is also currently working on a methodology for sector specific human rights impact assessments in Myanmar, including the ICT sector.

Telenor and Ooredoo have a real chance to show they are companies with human rights responsibilities embedded in the company’s DNA, and are committed to ensuring that their services are tools that can assist Myanmar’s transition to a democratic country respecting freedom of expression and privacy.

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