Why is Myanmar’s military blocking the internet?

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Generals have banned Facebook and other popular platforms and imposed an internet blackout for the past 18 nights.

Yangon, Myanmar – Hours after the Myanmar military seized power in a coup on February 1, it cut the internet. The blackout stalled the spread of information, as people in Myanmar and around the world slowly learned that the military had declared a one-year state of emergency and overthrown the civilian government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Far from an emergency measure, however, internet restrictions have become a hallmark of the generals’ short tenure in power.

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Every night for more than two weeks, the military has imposed an internet blackout from 1am (18:30 GMT) to 9am (02:30 GMT) across the country. At the same time, it has also moved to grant itself sweeping powers to censor and arrest online dissenters. The regime has also banned access to websites, including popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The first overnight internet shutdown was imposed on February 6, the same day as the first mass protest.

Thousands took to the streets while misinformation spread via text messages, much of it seemingly designed to suppress protesters from gathering. One commonly shared message falsely claimed that the protesters were hired by the military to justify a harsher crackdown on the general population. Another falsely reported that Aung San Suu Kyi had been released.

But it was not until February 15 at 1am that the military government began its coordinated, nightly shutdowns. By then, mass protests were becoming increasingly common across the country, unhindered by the slowdown of information. Theories abound as to why the military has persisted with the blackouts.

James Griffiths, the author of The Great Firewall of China, said the decision to ban Facebook and Twitter was “not surprising” but the overnight internet shutdowns were “a lot stranger”.

“Such blocks are relatively easy to achieve, especially when the government controls ISPs [internet service providers] which in the case of a military junta we must assume they do physically even if they don’t legally,” he said about the social media censorship.

Griffiths said there “does seem to be some merit to the idea” that the nightly shutdowns are related to “installing new tech”. “Even then, however, it is slightly confusing, given that internet systems, including internet backbones, are upgraded periodically around the world without this type of outage,” he continued.

Soldiers have used increasing force against protesters with some 50 people killed since the coup took place a month ago, according to the UN [File: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA]

Human rights groups and international business organisations came together to condemn the military government’s moves to legally restrict the internet via a draft Cybersecurity Bill and a series of amendments to the Electronic Transactions Law.

‘Unlimited power’

The proposed cyber-law would require that all online service providers keep all user data inside Myanmar and provide the government with the unrestricted authority to censor content or access user data, an onerous requirement for the providers and an enormous threat to human rights.

“As currently drafted, it requires internet service providers to disclose user information to the authorities at any point in time without justifiable reasons,” said a February 15 statement signed by eight chambers of commerce including the US, UK and Europe.

“The draft cybersecurity law would hand a military that just staged a coup and is notorious for jailing critics almost unlimited power to access user data, putting anyone who speaks out at risk,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Amid the public outcry, the military government quietly amended the Electronic Transactions Law on February 15, adding some provisions that had originally been planned for the Cybersecurity Bill.

According to the non-government organisation Free Expression Myanmar, the copied amendments include jail time for spreading “false information” and giving the authorities broad powers to intercept user data. It is not clear if the military government still plans to move forward with the Cybersecurity Bill, or if it is content with the provisions in the Electronic Transactions Law.

A regional telecommunications expert, who asked to comment anonymously due to the political sensitivity of the issue, said it was “possible” the internet shutdowns were related to a new censorship regime.

“No one outside the junta knows for sure, [but] it is possible that the government is shutting parts of the network at night to install hardware to implement strict censorship protocols and this would be permitted under their new cybersecurity law,” the expert said.

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