Information & Communication Technology

ICTs and Elections: Tackling Network Shutdowns, Hate Speech and Surveillance in Myanmar

Commentary, 28 June 2015

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

Myanmar will hold its much-anticipated general election on November 8th 2015. The Internet will play an important role in these elections.

The country’s ICT sector is developing at speed and there are many ways companies could have a positive impact. Civil society groups are developing innovative ways to utilise new communication tools, including disseminating information about voter lists and assisting with election monitoring.

When I was in Myanmar in August 2014, Telenor and Ooredoo were rolling out new mobile networks and cheap SIM cards for mobile phones were finally available, costing around $1.50 as opposed to hundreds of dollars barely a few years earlier. During my visit last month, the speed of change was visible. Many people now own affordable, Chinese-made smartphones (costing around $30) and telecommunication company branding adorns seemingly every tea shop and roadside stall.

Civil society groups worry the government may shut down networks during the elections to prevent the dissemination of information, as happened during the 2007 Saffron Revolution. This could also prevent political parties from engaging their supporters, or from sending messages to the electorate. In addition, there are concerns over rising “hate speech” by Myanmar’s growing social media users, mostly directed towards the Muslim community, and fears that this may escalate before the election.

I was in Yangon for consultations organised by the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB), on our draft ICT Sector Wide Impact Assessment (SWIA). This is a comprehensive report analysing the sector’s potential human rights impacts and provides recommendations for business, government, and civil society.

The risk of hate speech and network shutdown features in the draft ICT SWIA, and I had the opportunity to present IHRB’s Digital Dangers project research (see Corporate Responses to Hate Speech in the 2013 Kenyan Presidential Elections Case Study: Safaricom and the forthcoming Corporate Responses to Mobile Network Shutdowns Case Study: Telenor Pakistan) to ICT companies and Myanmar civil society actors.

Nay Phone Latt, Executive Director of the Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation (MIDO), one of the very few digital rights organisations in Myanmar, is a Burmese blogger, poet and activist. He was imprisoned by the former military regime from 2008-2012 for blogging about the military crackdown on protesters during the 2007 Saffron Revolution. On the issue of network shutdowns, he told me,

“We have faced [network shutdowns] before, not only in the Saffron Revolution but [recently during] the violence in Mandalay and other places, Internet connection was not only shutdown but becomes very slow. So because of the media and international pressure, I think the government won’t shut down the Internet but they can slow it down… We don’t have a proper solution, but I like the Hong Kong students’ technique, they used applications that don’t need a phone line, we would like that.”

During the Occupy protests in Hong Kong in September 2014, protesters feared mobile and Internet communications would be shut down. Activists switched to using a messaging application called Firechat, which exchanges messages via Bluetooth rather than the Internet or a mobile network.

One of MIDO’s campaigns, Panzagar (meaning “flower speech” in Burmese), tackles the issue of hate speech on social media by promoting counter speech and messages of peace. Nay Phone Latt continued,

“So when we are nearer to the 2015 elections, the problem of hate speech will also increase, that is why we try to accelerate our campaign… we have so many problems, in Rakhine state, also at the border with Bangladesh, but we would like to encourage people to solve a problem in a peaceful way, not with violence.”

Besides hate speech, another matter of concern in Myanmar is surveillance. Our ICT SWIA project also focuses on lawful interception and surveillance. Myanmar currently has no legal framework for either, although the government has committed to a public consultation on forthcoming draft regulations. The former military government in Myanmar established an intrusive surveillance regime for many years, both online and offline, in order to suppress criticism and dissent, and to restrict access to information for the Burmese people. Surveillance was part of Burmese life, especially for members of opposition political parties, student activists, and ethnic minorities in armed conflict areas. The reference to George Orwell’s novel 1984 resonates with Burmese people probably more than anywhere else in the world. Not only did Orwell live and work in Myanmar, he also wrote a novel set in the country, Burmese Days. It is thought by many in Myanmar that 1984 is in fact written about the country, and Orwell is referred to as “the prophet” in Emma Larkin’s book “Finding George Orwell in Burma”.

So the idea of setting ‘rules’ around surveillance naturally raises some eyebrows. To aid this process and transition, MCRB and IHRB developed an annex to the ICT SWIA featuring Seven Principles of a rights-respecting lawful intercept model, including:

  1. Pre-requisites before lawful interception should be considered;
  2. An authorisation processes, including judicial authorisation, which Myanmar has already committed to;
  3. Oversight by an independent body from those requesting or authorising lawful interception or surveillance;
  4. Notification of individuals after they have been targets of surveillance;
  5. Access to remedy for those who believe they have been placed under surveillance illegally;
  6.  Transparency, including clear and accessible laws and the government publishing aggregate yearly figures on the number of requests for lawful interception or surveillance, and
  7. The provision for framework review to ensure rights are protected.

While in Yangon, MCRB and IHRB ran two workshops with civil society groups around these Seven Principles and the concept of lawful interception in preparation for the forthcoming public consultation.

The level of awareness around digital security is currently quite low in Myanmar, for example, understanding the need for strong, secret passwords and protecting personal information like bank details. Governments clearly have an obligation to protect the rights of their citizens, such as the right to privacy and companies have a responsibility to respect the rights of users. But new users of ICTs also have a responsibility to protect their own data and take steps to secure it.

While the ICT sector in Myanmar will undoubtedly continue to bring benefits, there is much work to be done to ensure human rights online are respect and protected. The period in the run up to, during, and after the elections, will be critical on several fronts. There is need to develop a legal framework and regulation on network shutdowns, to establish rules for lawful interception and data protection, and for ICT companies to create policies on dealing with hate speech and responding to requests for network shutdowns. Civil society groups need to advocate protections to ensure data security, monitor and call for regulation of hate speech. These joint efforts can help ensure that ICTs consistently bring benefit to all, and contribute to ensuring the upcoming elections pass peacefully.

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