Old Baku

2 December 2012

The Top Five Threats to Internet Freedom You’ve Never Heard Of

1 November 2012

This was originally posted on the Freedom House Blog

You’ve probably heard of the Great Firewall of China, which scrubs the web of any potentially subversive content for half a billion internet users. And you’ve definitely heard about the Egyptian government’s decision to switch off all internet and mobile-phone networks at the height of the uprising in 2011. But there are a host of lesser-known threats to internet freedom, some of which endanger the very nature of the net as we know it.

Next week, over 20 civil society representatives from around the world will join a Freedom House delegation in Baku, Azerbaijan, for the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the United Nations’ flagship conference for discussing global internet policy. The delegation will be addressing a range of internet freedom issues covered in our 2012 report Freedom on the Net, including these, the top five threats to internet freedom you’ve never heard of:


Next month, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will hold a major meeting in Dubai that could fundamentally alter the structure and global reach of the internet. The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) will consider whether and how the ITU should take over regulation of the internet from multistakeholder processes like the IGF. Only governments can be members of the ITU, although corporations can pony up the tens of thousands of dollars needed to buy “observer status.”

WCIT will be more or less closed to civil society actors, but we know that repressive and democratic member states alike are putting forward proposals that could stifle the internet as a force for economic development and positive social change. One European proposal would put tariffs on internet traffic between states, while another, supported by Middle Eastern countries and Russia, would give the ITU authority over cybercrime, and could have negative effects on privacy, anonymity, and human rights. What’s at stake in December is not just the open, cooperative process through which the internet has historically been governed, but also the web’s role as a creator of prosperity and an enabler of civic engagement.

2. Digital Violence

As citizens take advantage of the internet to advocate for political, civil, and human rights, governments and nonstate entities have lashed out at these online activists, seeking to silence their voices. Cyberattacks, including distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, have been used widely to take down the websites of independent media in Russia and elsewhere, while Syrian and Tibetan activists have been aggressively targeted with phishing and malware assaults that aim to steal their private information and undermine their security. While it is difficult to identify the sources of these attacks, it is all but certain that they originate with government agents. In highly repressive states, including Bahrain, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Vietnam, this digital violence can spill over into the offline world. Reports abound of citizens being tortured or even killed in police custody because of their online activities.

3. Intermediary Liability

Censorship is hard work. There are an awful lot of blog posts, videos, cartoons, and comments that might contain subversive messages, and any government seeking to “purify” the internet would have to spend a great deal of time and money on the project. So rather than take on the task of policing online content themselves, many governments have outsourced censorship to the private sector. They do so by making internet intermediaries—including internet service providers (ISPs), search engines, hosting services, social-media platforms, and other community forums—legally responsible for the content their users post.

For example, in Thailand, where it is illegal to speak ill of the royal family, someone posted offending messages in a popular online news forum. Rather than block the offending page or go after the commenter, the government sentenced the moderator of the forum to eight months in prison for failing to remove the comments quickly enough. In many countries with laws like this, intermediaries are so intimidated that they cast a very wide net, removing content that may not even be illegal and fundamentally restricting freedom of expression and the free flow of information.

4. Online Misinformation

Over the past decade, activists have gotten better at using the web to organize supporters, share ideas, and advocate for change. Unfortunately, authoritarian governments are learning to do exactly the same things. One of the fastest-rising negative trends is the spread of misinformation and veiled propaganda by repressive regimes seeking to undermine independent media and discredit critical citizens.

In China and Russia, government apparatchiks and their hirelings stay busy posting proregime messages all over the internet, drowning out independent voices. In Iran, the government has spent over $50 million to produce and disseminate domestic propaganda on the web. Leading up to the Egyptian election this year, a Facebook account dedicated to reports of electoral irregularities was hacked, and pro-military messages were published in their place. In the long run, the balance of power may favor the voices of the many over the powerful few, but these governments and others are working hard to dominate what could otherwise be a vibrantly democratic space.

5. Mobile Privacy

Mobile-phone networks were built for functionality, not privacy. Whether you subscribe to Verizon in the United States, Vodafone in Egypt, or MTN in Iran, your mobile network retains a lot of information about you: Every phone call is recorded, every text message is saved, and every place you go is captured by the network’s location-tracking software. Even if the privacy implications don’t bother you, mobile-phone users who happen to disagree with a repressive government have a lot to fear, as network operators are typically very willing to share information with the state security apparatus. Indeed, in many countries, they’re just another branch of the government.

One of the great things about the way the internet is currently governed is that anybody with a stake in internet policy can join the debate—governments, technologists, academics, human rights activists, and businesses alike. This multistakeholder model has been key to keeping the internet free and open. At the IGF this year, the Freedom House delegation will be taking part in this global discussion, engaging at the highest levels to protect human rights online and help shape the future of the internet.

The Digital Age Steps Softly into Burma

18 October 2012

In a recent blog post here and at FreedomHouse.org, I offered my analysis of what the changes in Burma’s ICT sector say about the country’s political transition, and what effects it may have on the same. Think of this as an appendix—less interesting for those into politics and narrative, but perhaps more interesting to dataheads and those working on Burma. Much of what has been recently written about the country is already out of date, and though this, too, will soon be obsolete, my intent is to paint a data-rich picture of the current state of the ICT market in Burma, and offer an anecdotal take on the ICT usage patterns of Burmese civil society at a fleeting moment of transition.

When we talk about ICT use in Burma, it’s important to remember that, for now, we’re talking about a tiny portion of the population. A recent Gallup survey found that 3% of Burmese households have a computer, and less than 1% have an internet connection. Even in urban areas, those figures only rise to 9% and 2%, respectively. As I wrote in the previous piece, low connectivity is the dual result of poverty and policy:

The handful of internet service providers operating in Burma are controlled by a cabal of political cronies, and the government has set high prices to prevent its citizens from accessing the global information network. Until recently, installing a home or office broadband connection cost a ludicrous $1,500—this in a country where the gross domestic product per capita is about $1,300, and a third of the population lives below the poverty line. In the past year, connection fees have dropped to a still outlandish $700. For those who can afford a connection, prices for ongoing access remain high: unlimited web access costs about $155 per month.

Adding to that: in Yangon, a WiMax package allowing usage of up to 12 GB per month costs $90 USD, a 6 GB package costs $55, and a 3 GB package costs $35 USD. As a result, public cafes have been the primary access point for most Internet users in Burma: Gallup found that 89% of those few Burmese who had recently used the internet did so in a café. Even there, prices limit most potential users to relatively brief sessions, while slow-as-molasses speeds and frequent power outages can render the service all but useless. An hour-long session at an average Internet café costs less than a dollar, but even this is prohibitive for average people in Burma.

Recently, there has been a shift toward mobile internet access: many of the civil society leaders I met in Yangon don’t have a wired or WiMAX connection in their home or office, but use laptops tethered to mobile phones to access email and the web. This option is pricier than a session at an Internet café, but far less expensive than a dedicated home or office connection—and though Freedom on the Net reports that the mobile internet “barely functions,” it’s still often faster than a “high speed” connection. Oddly, the advent of mobile Internet has left many Internet cafes in Yangon sitting empty, as they are less convenient than mobile web for those who can afford it, yet still too expensive for poorer citizens.

The data on mobile phones are slightly more encouraging: According to Gallup, 14% of Burmese report having a mobile phone, and almost 30% of urbanites own one. Two years ago, only 3% of Burmese had a mobile: this rise is probably due to drops in the government-fixed price of a SIM card. As I wrote:

While a SIM card in neighboring Thailand costs less than $1.50 USD, acquiring a GSM SIM in Burma costs at least $250 USD: a dramatic drop from the $500 USD it cost until recently.

We should expect the quotient of mobile phone users to continue rising at a rapid clip: Burma’s state telecom agency announced last month that they would privatize the telecom industry, aiming to achieve mobile penetration of 75-80% by 2016. It’s an ambitious goal, but not unrealistic: nearby Cambodia has seen year-on-year growth of 12-14% in their mobile penetration over the past five years, with a current rate over 70%.

Currently, though, Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT), the state-run telecom operator, maintains exclusive control over the country’s mobile networks. MPT offers both CDMA and GSM networks, with CDMA offering higher call quality at higher prices; most mobile phone users opt for GSM. Chinese-manufactured handsets—particularly Huawei devices running Android—dominate the market, and are priced at global levels.

For those able to afford a SIM and handset, prices for service are high but not outlandish: a text message costs 25 Kyat (less than $0.03 USD), and a minute of talk-time costs 50 Kyat (less than $0.06 USD). Despite the popularity of text messaging in other, similar contexts, and the manageable cost of the service, Gallup reports that only a third of mobile phone owners regularly send SMS. This is largely attributable to the fact that it remains difficult to type in Burmese on a mobile device. Only in recent versions of Android is a Burmese font and keyboard available, and SMS has yet to take hold even with these users. On older and cheaper phones, users must transliterate to Roman characters, which is impossible for many Burmese.

Mobile credit “scratch” cards are a recent addition to the mobile market—they became available in 2011. Before the arrival of these cards, mobile phone users could only top up their accounts at an MPT office, which many people found inconvenient.  While the advent of these cards is a step in the right direction, they still pose a barrier to many poorer users, as they are not available in denominations smaller than 10,000 kyat—about $11 USD—which is more than most Burmese are able to spend at one time.

For those Burmese who sign up for Internet access, buy time at an Internet café, or purchase a SIM card, the government imposes strict registration requirements, collecting the name and other identifying information of the customer.  A black market of less expensive, unregistered, prepaid SIMs exists, but not many mobile users opt to purchase their SIMs from unlicensed resellers, in part because of the hassle of changing phone numbers every time the SIM runs out of credit.

Because of better support for Burmese fonts and better in-country marketing, Gmail is the ubiquitous email platform in Burma. On the web, Facebook is rapidly growing in popularity. The younger generation of activists and journalists are particularly active on the social networking platform—one college-aged volunteer at a political advocacy organization boasted of having 20 Facebook accounts that he checked regularly. Even political parties are starting to use Facebook for outreach campaigns. Gallup found that among the small number of internet users they interviewed, 80% had used Google to find news and information in the past month, and 40% had used Facebook.  These two services far outstripped any other online news source.

Looking forward, I am relatively bullish about the growth of connectivity in Burma. The government seems genuine in its desire to expand the economy and reduce poverty, and the recent drops in price for web and mobile access are likely baby steps toward a less regulated market. It’s reasonable to expect mobile penetration to reach 60% or even 70% in the next 4-5 years, and while internet access will grow more slowly, civil society organizations based in the major cities should expect to have more affordable, more reliable service in the coming years.

Burma Steps Warily into the Digital Age

10 September 2012

This was originally posted at FreedomHouse.org.

A Burmese human rights activist told me a story about the last time his office was raided, two years ago. Government security forces kicked down his door and stormed the office, with a mandate to seize the organization’s electronic data. Not exactly savvy in computer hardware, the raiders grabbed only the monitors and marched out. A few days later, the activist was hauled before a judge and accused of deleting all his data. He was convicted and imprisoned.

I recently spent 10 days in Rangoon, Burma’s largest city, working with human rights activists, student organizers, independent journalists, and former political prisoners to help them protect their electronic data and communications. For most, I was starting with the basics, though even they had more technical knowledge than the security forces storming my friend’s office. In Burma, digital literacy is low, internet connections are slow, and fewer people are plugged in than in almost any country on earth. The latest figures on internet and mobile telephone use from the International Telecommunication Union are over two years old, but the grim picture they paint is not yet obsolete: in 2010, 0.2 percent of the Burmese population were internet users, and only one in a hundred owned a mobile phone. Those numbers have improved, but for nearly everyone in this very poor country, such technologies are still inaccessible.

The major obstacles to broader, speedier connectivity in Burma have been—and continue to be—poverty and government policy. The handful of internet service providers operating in Burma are controlled by a cabal of political cronies, and the government has set high prices to prevent its citizens from accessing the global information network. Until recently, installing a home or office broadband connection cost a ludicrous $1,500—this in a country where the gross domestic product per capita is about $1,300, and a third of the population lives below the poverty line. In the past year, connection fees have dropped to a still outlandish $700. For those who can afford a connection, prices for ongoing access remain high: unlimited web access costs about $155 per month. These connections are agonizingly slow, reminiscent of the days of the 56k modem. Outside Rangoon and Mandalay, Burma’s second-largest city, high-speed internet access is rare, if not altogether unavailable.

The government has even tighter control of the mobile phone market. Myanmar Post and Telecommunication (MPT), a state-owned entity, is the sole mobile network operator. As with the internet, prices are set to prevent access for all but the most affluent. While a SIM card in neighboring Thailand costs less than $1.50, acquiring a GSM SIM in Burma costs at least $250—a very high bar for most Burmese, though a dramatic drop from the $500 it cost until recently.

The recent price cuts for internet access and mobile connectivity indicate a shift in policy at the highest levels. As President Thein Sein seeks to build a wealthier, stronger state that is prepared to prosper in the 21st century through a series of gradual reforms, it is safe to assume that the latest pricing changes are just the initial steps toward a telecommunications industry that will be no more heavily regulated than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. International telecom firms have been among the many foreign companies anticipating a “gold rush” opportunity in Burma, and impending investment in communications infrastructure is sure to increase the speed of internet access, as policy shifts bring prices down to global levels.

Also in the past year, the government has stopped blocking access to most online media, including many international and regional outlets, and ended direct censorship of domestic media. Some Burmese outlets, including the online news site Mizzima, have recently returned from exile and opened offices in Rangoon. A small community of Burmese bloggers has been active since the middle of the last decade. Several were arrested following the uprising in 2007 for posting political content, but most were released in the general amnesty in January. This group includes the well-known blogger and activist Nay Phone Latt, who was notoriously arrested on charges of being a “blocker”—the government was unfamiliar with the term “blogger,” and presumed that he was somehow blocking economic activity. Today Nay Phone Latt is among the leaders of a younger generation of activists seeking to use the web to advocate for political progress.

The stories of Nay Phone Latt and the monitor-seizing government agents depict a technically incompetent government that is incapable of effective monitoring and surveillance. This is a fairly accurate picture. Most past cases of the government monitoring electronic communications have involved security forces compelling activists to hand over the passwords to their e-mail accounts, effectively at gunpoint.

But it would be imprudent to expect this incompetence to continue. In the past, the Burmese generals had little need to surreptitiously monitor dissidents. If they wanted to arrest, interrogate, or imprison a suspected activist, they would simply give the order. As the government pursues a degree of internal and international legitimacy, however, it will almost certainly seek more subtle ways to gather intelligence about the activities of citizens. Control of information and communication technologies offers an outstanding opportunity for covert surveillance, and the government is sure to master the art in the coming years.

The government already has mechanisms in place to facilitate monitoring of online behavior. For those Burmese who sign up for internet access, buy time at an internet café, or purchase a SIM card for a mobile phone, the government imposes strict registration requirements, collecting the name and other identifying information of the customer. Between government control of the networks and these registration rules, internet and especially mobile communications are largely exposed to the authorities, and must be considered a serious security risk for political activists.

A cynical—though probably realistic—interpretation of the new moves toward broader, lower-cost access might posit that the Burmese government foresees such a bounty of online and mobile surveillance (as already practiced in countries like China and Iran) that the expected political cost of expanding access has dropped to nil. But for those activists with the skills to ensure a degree of digital security, the falling cost and rising speed of internet access will be a boon to their efforts at protest, organizing, and advocacy. In a country so long cut off from the world, the greater opportunity to access information and express opinions is an immense and positive change.

This is Burma

17 August 2012

I’m nestled on a bench in the back of a truck between a young woman, her face swirled with golden thanaka, and an old man, his sarong-like longyi knotted at the waist, woven rice hat on his wrinkled brown head. Our conductor hangs off the back of the truck, his longyi, too, whipping in the draft, shouting at pedestrians, suggesting they might want to get on his truck, with an urgency typically reserved for wartime and natural disasters. Someone signals something, and the truck jolts to a halt; everyone falls on everyone else, and then springs back upright. Four teenage boys clamber to the roof of the truck, followed by two sacks of rice and a bicycle, and we lurch back into motion. Here in Burma, where cars drive and drivers sit on the right side, we make a daring swerve around a stopped truck overflowing with pineapples, and driver thankfully finds no oncoming traffic save a few motorbikes and an old woman with a basket on her head who obligingly dodge us, and we’re speeding onward.

Twante (Twantay? Thwan Te?) is a small town a few hours from Yangon notable primarily for a substantial pagoda that may or may not have three hairs from the Buddha’s own scalp buried deep within. We pulled into the town square, and I stumbled down the road toward the pagoda’s golden spire, jutting above the soot-gray cement-block buildings in the town center. The people of Twante looked on with perplexed amusement, and I smiled ingenuously back. I did not get far.

Kyaw Soe is a driver (motorbike) and tour guide (specializing in rare white people) in Twante. He is a devout Buddhist, taking every shrine and temple as an opportunity to explain that ‘my Buddha is very powerful.’ He takes a keen interest, also, in the miracles of ‘your Yesu’, who, he generously notes, is also very powerful. Twante, he explains, has Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians, but no fighting. He is justifiably proud. Kyaw Soe is small, but claims to be able to swim across the Twante canal and back again without taking a break. His friendly smile has one black tooth, and the rest are stained red from his occasional habit of chewing betel.

He took me around Twante on the back of his motorbike, showing me where the town’s potters crafted and fired their work, and taking me to a cotton-weaving house, where three adolescent girls sat at looms in a small nipa hut, their hands and feet pulling strings and levers on the bamboo contraptions in practiced rhythm, weaving shoulder bags to be sold in Yangon. The bags are strikingly beautiful, in bold colors, with designs drawn from the crafts of Burma’s ethnic minorities. They can each make four bags in one long, hot day.

Kyaw Soe has a wife and two children, and also supports his in-laws—both his parents died a few years ago, in their 40s. His father died from drinking too much whiskey. His mother died from walking to the fish market every day for 40 years, which, Kyaw Soe illustrates via gesticulation, caused her insides to fall apart. They are buried together in the town cemetery. Kyaw Soe is unsure if they gave enough money to the monastery to ensure a trip to the sky.

We went to the market, where Kyaw Soe seemed to be very popular among the fish ladies, who ribbed him and cackled at his jokes as they lopped off fish heads with machetes. One expansive woman, squatting behind piles of uncomfortable live ducks tied up at the feet, her midsection spilling out over the top of her loosely wrapped longyi, suggested to Kyaw Soe that he give me to her for the afternoon. I am not exactly sure what she wanted to do with me, but I’m glad I wasn’t turned over.

Kyaw Soe had no idea that America was on the other side of the earth from Burma, and was flabbergasted to learn that it was nighttime in New York when it was daytime in Yangon. He demonstrated that he can say ‘thank you’ in English, French, Spanish, Italian and German, and then asked how we say it in America. He thought it odd but fortunate for us both that we Americans choose to speak English. He asked whether America was near Italy and sought to confirm that New Zealand and Switzerland were neighbors. He is also a die-hard Manchester United fan, adores Wayne Rooney, and thinks David Beckham is a prettyboy. Premier League football: the common human experience, if there is one. (N.B.: Among the European football jerseys I saw walking around Burma, Arsenal kits easily outnumbered all others combined. We’ve got a beachhead, boys.)

We went on to the docks, where the morning catch had already been brought in (and had their heads chopped off). Workers sprawled idly in the humidity, waiting for the afternoon boats and the break in the heat the day’s rains would bring. An ancient woman in a low bamboo hat smoked a green cheroot and cooked noodles over a coal fire, hurling threats and insults at the kids horsing around on the dock. Inside the fish house, a serious, mustachioed man sat counting money, piles of cash burying his desk. On the next dock, shirtless boys played soccer, the goal two wooden posts at the end of the pier. An errant shot—or a goal—meant a leap into the Twante canal, which connects the Yangon River to the Irrawaddy River, and is part of the network of waterways that reticulate Burma’s delta region.

The whole delta region was, until last year, quite closed to foreigners, and Twante would have been a tricky place for someone of my complexion to visit. The Burmese government had hoped to hide from foreign eyes the devastation and destruction left behind by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, but evidently redevelopment has progressed enough to reopen. This was just the last in a series of suspect policies following the cyclone. The first and most devastating was the junta’s initial refusal to accept any international assistance, which was followed by grotesque incompetence in the government’s own response. As a result of this proud posturing, about 140,000 people died before the junta decided they had better stop counting.

Devastated by the plight of their countrymen, many Burmese from Yangon and elsewhere rushed to the delta region to help in any way they could. But the government took affront to this, as well, and threw many of these would-be volunteers into prison. This fiasco came less than a year after the 2007 uprising, in which high gas prices led to popular discontent, which led to angry protests, which led to a crackdown wherein Buddhist monks in their saffron robes were shot in the street by scared teenagers in military uniforms under orders from their general and president. I met university students who were detained for aiding the victims of Nargis, and then convicted of participating in the uprising. They spent over three years in Insein Prison along with the bloggers, journalists and political leaders who had organized and publicized the Saffron Revolution; they were just recently released, and can now continue their studies, though hundreds of political prisoners remain locked up.

Kyaw Soe and I got on famously, and at the end of his standard tour, he offered to take me to a temple where, as I understood from his description, the Buddhists had been using the same latrine for 1,000 years. We rolled out of town, his motorbike coughing and hiccupping, and rolled past fish farms with rainbow netting and verdant rice paddies. After a brief stop to review the husbandry practices of Burmese fish farmers (evidently, to ensure production of sufficient eggs, the farmers net together one female fish with two males; Kyaw Soe gave a lurid laugh at what must be going on in the muddy water), we pulled into the walled garden of a rural monastery.

He led me up into an ancient teak building sitting on stilts beside the canal, and introduced me to an aged monk who sat shooting jets of crimson betel juice into a spittoon. At the front of the vast room were walls of glass, and behind that wall was a small glass case surrounded by plastic flowers and colorful blinking lights. Inside the case were two bronze Buddhas, no more than a foot tall, beautiful and roughly worn. My confusion was revealed: when digging a new latrine for the monastery, the monks had driven their shovels into these two Buddhas, which turned out to be over 1,000 years old. After admiring the Buddhas and sitting for a spell with the monk, I was escorted outside to take a look in the pit where the Buddhas had been found, preserved as a hole in the ground for years.

The afternoon grew dark, and a cool wind signaled the impending daily storm. Kyaw Soe offered to spare me a return trip in the tin can truck, and drove me back to Dala, where I could catch my ferry to Yangon. As we drove, the skies opened up, immense raindrops smacking us in the face. We swerved through a herd of buffaloes crossing the street, and dodged the jets of betel juice emitting from the windows of passing buses. When we arrived, soaked and dripping, Kyaw Soe suggested we dry off in the roadhouse and have a beer. So we sat, rain pounding the tin roof.
As we sat, I showed Kyaw Soe my driver’s license, which he interpreted as a sort of union card, and was thrilled that he and I shared the same profession. He eagerly asked how much money a driver like me earned in an average day, and then subtracted out my estimates of necessary living expenses in Washington Township: 30 dollars per day for a house, 20 dollars per day for food, and figured that I probably profited more than the four dollars he might bank on a good day. Then he asked how much money Wayne Rooney makes per day, and resolutely disbelieved my estimate. Then he asked how many townships America has. We went on and on.

We sat for hours, drinking Mandalay beer, snacking on fried prawns and peanuts. The Olympics came on—it was morning in London—and the whole bar turned to watch, in live HD, the first heats of the two-man rowing competition. The bar hooted at the failings of the Americans, rooted tepidly for the Chinese (not out of any particular fondness for Burma’s sometimes imperial patron to the north, but more out of Asian solidarity), and watched with indifference as brawny European men won race after race. Eventually, I bid Kyaw Soe farewell (and paid him for his services), and boarded the ferry back to Yangon, where a freshly tidied room waited for me with clean sheets on a king-sized bed.