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Burning down Myanmar’s Internet firewall

Filed under: General,global islands,media — admin @ 5:17 am

YANGON – Myanmar maintains some of the world’s most restrictive Internet controls, including government-administered blocks on foreign news sites and the use of popular e-mail services. But when politically sensitive fuel-price protests broke out last month in the old capital city Yangon, government censors proved powerless to stop the outflow of information and images over the Internet to the outside world.

State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) authorities have increased their efforts to curb local and foreign media coverage of the protests and their heavy-handed response against demonstrators. Pro-government thugs have been deployed to harass and intimidate local journalists and camera-carriers, some of whom have had their mobile-phone services cut.

Authorities initially ordered a blackout on all local media coverage of the protests and have since crafted and placed articles in mouthpiece media criticizing the protest leaders they have detained. But the government is losing decidedly its most crucial censorship battle: over the Internet. Despite government bans, journalists and dissidents continue to send information and video clips of the protests over the Internet to foreign-based news organizations.

Exile-run media have published detailed blow-by-blow accounts and explicit video clips of government crackdowns. Popular video-sharing website YouTube is flush with footage of the protests posted by citizen journalists under Burmese names, including one posting by a user who apparently uses the same name as SPDC leader General Than Shwe. The Thailand-based, exile-run Irrawaddy – a la CNN – has called on the Myanmar population to play the role of citizen journalists and send information to their newsdesk.

So why have the Myanmar authorities, who had apparently deployed some of the most restrictive cyber-controls anywhere in the world, so utterly failed to stem the outflow of sensitive information? Myanmar’s military government deploys various software-based filtering techniques aimed at severely limiting the content the country’s citizens can access online.

Most Internet accounts in Myanmar are designed to provide access only to the limited Myanmar intranet, and the authorities block access to popular e-mail services such as Gmail and Hotmail. According to the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), a joint research project on Internet censorship issues headed by Harvard University, Myanmar’s Internet-censorship regime as of 2005 was among the “most extensive” in the world.

The research noted that the Myanmar government “maintains the capability to conduct surveillance of communication methods such as e-mail, and to block users from viewing websites of political opposition groups and organizations working for democratic change in Burma”. An ONI-conducted survey of websites containing material known to be sensitive to the regime found in 2005 that 84% of the pages they tested were blocked. The regime also maintained an 85% filtration rate of well-known e-mail service providers, in line with, as ONI put it, the government’s “well-documented efforts to monitor communication by its citizens and to control political dissent and opposition movements”.

Myanmar’s technical censorship capabilities were also reputedly bolstered by the regime’s procurement and implementation of filtering software produced and sold by US technology company Fortinet. According to ONI’s research, the regime was as of 2005 continuing to seek to refine its censorship regime, which showed no signs of lessening and could worsen as it moves to more sophisticated software products.

Eschewing the censors

Two years later, thanks to the growing global proliferation of proxy servers, proxy sites, encrypted e-mail accounts, http tunnels and other creative workarounds, the cyber-reality in Myanmar is actually much less restricted than ONI’s research indicated.

To be sure, official Internet penetration rates are abysmally low in Myanmar, because of the prohibitive cost and bureaucratic hassle, including the provision of a signed letter from the relevant porter warden that the applicant is not “politically dangerous”, to secure a domestic connection.

However, those low figures mask the explosion of usage at public Internet cafes, particularly in Yangon, where a growing number are situated in nondescript, hard-to-find locales. All of the cafes visited in recent months by this correspondent were equipped with foreign-hosted proxy sites or servers, which with the help of the cafe attendant allowed customers to bypass government firewalls and connect freely to the World Wide Web – including access to otherwise blocked critical news sources.

One particularly popular proxy site in Myanmar’s cyber-cafes is, popularly known as Glite. According to the site’s India-based administrator, the Glite program has been downloaded by tens of thousands of Internet surfers and resides on hundreds of private and public servers in Myanmar, allowing its users to access Gmail accounts that the government has tried to block.

The authorities have so far moved to block three particular Glite versions, but the program’s administrator says he has in response designed and set up more sites, of which he estimates there are currently 11 unblocked versions, some of which are housed in support site forums in a format that is difficult to search and block.

He says Glite is also designed not to be indexed by search sites, which gives Myanmar’s Internet cafes their own private and secure access and makes censor search-engine results for its site seem deceptively sparse. Although the site’s administrator says he is “apolitical”, he believes Myanmar’s junta is “fighting a losing battle” in trying to censor the Internet.

Other popular proxy servers in Yangon’s cafes are and, both of which similarly maintain new, updated versions to bypass government firewalls. The same is true for various encrypted e-mail services, including the hyper-secure, which many local and exile-based journalists have been trained to use and technology experts say the junta lacks the expertise to crack.

The proliferation of evasive small-scale technologies, some like Glite maintained by private individuals with a penchant for programming, have in these restive times left Myanmar’s junta with few viable censorship options but to unplug the Internet altogether. Indeed, there have been recent reports of rolling Internet blackouts across Yangon’s cyber-cafes, particularly during the late afternoons, when journalists would normally file their stories.

So far the authorities seem reluctant to make yet another policy decision, on top of last month’s hyper-inflationary fuel-price hikes, that would impinge on national livelihoods, particularly the urban-based business class, who judging by their numbers in Yangon’s cyber-cafes have grown increasingly reliant on the Internet for cheap communications. That, of course, could change in the weeks ahead if the street protests mount and the government cracks down more forcefully.

Yet the comprehensive news coverage that has leaked out of Myanmar represents an important victory for the global forces fighting to keep the Internet free from government censorship. And when the dust finally clears on Myanmar’s popular protests, depending on the eventual outcome, the information-driven movement could one day be known as Myanmar’s Glite revolution.

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