Myanmar Elections: Many Questions

Most every city on earth is festooned with ads promoting one mobile phone service or another. Until recently, Yangon (Rangoon) was an exception. But today, brand new, bright red umbrellas emblazoned with the logo of Ooredoo shade curbside food stalls, while blue placards advertise the sale of Telenor top-up cards from nearly every storefront.

The two international mobile operators both launched in Myanmar (Burma) last month, and for the first time, connectivity is available to a wide swath of citizens. Not long ago, a SIM card for the government-run NPT mobile network (the only option available) cost upward of $1000 USD. Now, with the opening of the market, a SIM card costs $1.50—on par with other countries in the region.

The National Hluttaw: Myanmar's Parliament
The National Hluttaw: Myanmar’s Parliament

This progress is the latest and perhaps most obvious hallmark of Myanmar’s much celebrated opening, which began in 2010 with the release of many political prisoners including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Few of the reforms are irreversible, however, and with elections scheduled for late next year, how the next year plays out will determine whether this country continues down the road to democracy or reverts to military authoritarianism.

Myanmar last held national elections in 2010, but the National League for Democracy (NLD), the country’s primary opposition party, declined to participate because of hopelessly unjust electoral laws and predictable fraud. Not surprisingly, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Myanmar’s military-linked ruling party, won nearly every seat in parliament. Continue reading “Myanmar Elections: Many Questions”

A Closed-Door Meeting on the Future of the Internet

This was originally posted on the Freedom House Blog

This week and next, 193 governments are gathering in Dubai to consider putting the internet under a new regulatory structure that could fundamentally change the way the web works, with dire consequences for global internet freedom.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN body, has convened the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) to review and update the International Telecommunications Regulations, which emerged from a similar conference in 1988. The old rules, known as ITRs, were written to codify principles of international cooperation on telephony, with the hope of expanding the global telephone network and helping it to operate smoothly. Now, 24 years later, the member states of the ITU are deciding, among other questions, whether and how the internet should fall under the same regulatory framework.

Back when the ITRs were first written, the World Wide Web did not yet exist, and internet users numbered only in the thousands. As it grew more popular, the internet was set aside by the ITU and treated as a “special arrangement,” not subject to the Union’s regulations. Under these conditions, the internet flourished organically, with administrative matters addressed through self-regulation, targeted government policies, and an array of technical and multistakeholder bodies. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), for example, is a nonprofit organization that oversees the management of internet protocol (IP) addresses and the domain name system, while the Internet Engineering Task Force is an open, volunteer-based group responsible for developing technical standards for the internet. The Internet Governance Forum, which was held last month in Azerbaijan, offers governments, corporations, and civil society a space to discuss internet policy issues. This ad hoc, informal administration has permitted internet governance to evolve as rapidly and agilely as the technology itself.

To place the internet under regulations written for a wholly different technology, subject to change only by intergovernmental treaty, would pave the way for stifling control far into the future, and jeopardize the internet’s role as a platform for expanding human rights. Yet in advance of the WCIT, certain governments—including a number, not surprisingly, that score poorly in Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net survey—and other entities have proposed putting the ITU in charge of internet regulation. They have also submitted specific draft rules that perfectly illustrate the hazards that could arise from ITU governance of the internet.

A proposal by the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association would impose a “sender pays” fee model, which would force internet content providers to pay for the content they disseminate. While ostensibly intended to give telecommunications companies additional resources to invest in expanding the global network, in fact this proposal would have the opposite effect, benefitting only incumbent telecom firms while raising the cost of internet access for individuals. A second proposal from the same group would establish a two-tiered internet by allowing content providers to pay for higher quality of service. This would violate the principle of net neutrality, which mandates that the network must treat all content equally.

In an attempt to combat crimes committed on or via the internet, multilateral coalitions of Arab and African states have put forward a variety of proposals. One would require that states cooperate in the investigation and prosecution of cybercrime, while another would require states to harmonize laws on data retention. No mention is made, however, of the significant impact these measures could have on the privacy of internet users, and there is a risk that repressive states could use these additions to the ITRs as an excuse for restricting political speech online.

To be sure, cybercrime and the digital divide are legitimate global policy problems, and they will require a coordinated global response. However, these are highly complex issues with multifarious implications. They cannot be properly addressed without granting all stakeholders an equal voice in the debate, and this points to another problem with the WCIT and with the ITU taking authority over the internet: only governments get a vote. While companies and international organizations are welcome to join the ITU as observers—provided they are able to pay the hefty membership fee—the technology, corporate, academic, user, and human rights communities cannot vote and are largely locked out of the proceedings.

The most dire and repressive proposals are unlikely to be adopted as changes to the ITRs at this meeting in Dubai. But the more fundamental question is whether the internet ought to be regulated under this framework at all. Over the past two decades, the internet has grown from almost nothing to a global network of over two billion users, with extraordinary effects on commerce, politics, human rights, and every other aspect of our lives. The current, lightweight regulatory framework has allowed the internet to prosper; imposing UN authority will put this invaluable resource at risk and particularly jeopardize those at odds with their government, many of whom have come to depend on the internet to advance causes like human rights and political freedom.

Fortunately, the U.S. government has made public its opposition to any proposals that would increase the ITU’s control over the internet, and the European Parliament has approved a resolution in support of more open, multistakeholder bodies addressing global internet issues. Without the ability to engage in the WCIT directly, we in civil society must count on like-minded governments to prevent a future in which the internet is less innovative, less inclusive, and diminished as a public space for unrestricted speech on politics and human rights.

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

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:

1. WCIT

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.

Burma Steps Warily into the Digital Age

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.

Rising Sun

From the window of my hotel room I can look down on a baseball diamond, glowing under the lights at night. I think I’m the only spectator, and I think they might be 12 years old. Their game just ended, and the two teams lined up at the center of the field– not to shake hands, as it turned out; instead, the two lines faced each other, and, in unison, bowed deeply. Then both sides posed together for a photo on the pitcher’s mound, and now they’re combing the infield with rakes like a sand garden.

I’m in Japan to help a group of civil society leaders from Southeast Asia engage at the Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum (APrIGF, if you happen to have an interest in bad acronyms), and the proceedings, covering such issues as the transition to IPv6 and the recent sale of new gTLDs are likely of as little interest to you, dear reader, as they are to some of my compatriots. (Excepting, of course, my own contribution… flatteringly mislabeled at around 27:30 and 1:25:00.)

The group, however, is an interesting one. Take my new Cambodian friend, Nana, who introduces herself as the accountant and assistant at a foundation in Phnom Penh, only later mentioning that she actually has two other part time jobs. And is a grad student in the evening. And that she writes short books to help poor people learn English, but noticed that shops marked up her prices by 150%, so opened her own shop to sell the books, subsidizing the rent by also selling shoes and handbags. And that at night, she hosts a call-in radio program that reaches… a million people, seeking her advice. Also she’s 25. I’ll eat my hat if she’s not president in 15 years.

I’ve hardly had a moment to see the city, but I have had the distinct pleasure of eating three meals each day, and the gastronomic tourism has been worth the trip in itself: raw fish, broiled fish, pickled vegetables, fried squid… At the conference, they give us lunch tickets, and we’re supposed to check off which of the half-dozen options we’d prefer. Confusion reigns, however, because “Pasta with Meat Sauce” was mistranslated as “Octopus with Meat Sauce,” “Eggplant” was confused with “Beef,” and the vegetarian option was somehow labelled “Stir-Fried Liver and Vegetables.” All pretty tasty, though, for the unpicky eater.

Saturday evening, I hopped off the Tokyo subway at an arbitrary stop, the better to know the Japanese people. Fast walkers. Obedient at crosswalks. Ineffably polite. I grew peckish and sought refreshment: “Bubble Bar, 8th Floor” read the sign outside one building. Everything in Tokyo is stacked at least five high.

I took the elevator and stepped out into a wood-paneled room, whiskey bottles lining the wall, a row of middle-aged Japanese, mostly men, at the bar, and others clustered in counsel around tables. As I emerged, the room, as though drawing on cliché, fell instantly, totally silent, and twenty blank faces turned my direction. Someone coughed, I grinned weakly, and a young woman scurried over from behind the bar. She bowed briskly, and posed a smiling question in Japanese. I continued grinning weakly. “Beer?”

“First time?” She asked, taking the hint, and I nodded. She began chattering with the patrons, pointing directorially, and they shuffled themselves to make a seat for me at the end of the bar. I sat, looked down the line, and ten heads, craning around each other, looked back, expressions now ranging from confusion, to disgust, to flabbergasted pleasure. I gave my toothiest “I’m just a big stupid white guy trying not to offend anyone” smile, and about half of them returned it. Generous, I’d say.

Miwa, my colleague and Japanese interlocutor, later explained that I had wandered into a sort of Japanese speakeasy: a place where the same group likely gathered, night after night, year after year. “First time?” was probably not an honest question. As I sat, the Bubble Bar proprietor sauntered over, dishrag on his shoulder, and explained “his system,” which included an extravagant cover charge. Not wanting to create further disturbance, I meekly handed over 25 bucks for my miserable Suntory Lager.

As I sipped, a stocky, middle aged man, his sunken eyes darkly circled, racoonlike, stood, and began reading from a document. Every few sentences, the crowd would cheer and applaud, and he would place a medal around someone’s neck. And it was a gallery of rogues: One man, his face puffy and droopy, eyes invisible, with a bouffant of thinning dyed red hair on his head. Another with the face of Kim Jong Il and the staccato laugh of Porky the Pig. Ultimately, the sunken-eyed man appeared to award the grand prize to himself. I was mercifully ignored, and made my escape as discreetly as possible, though I was noticed by one woman who, her face beaming with excited delight, waved frantically as I stepped back into the elevator.


Looking down at my ballfield, the outfield lights are off now, and with his shadow long behind second base, a lone ballplayer is still circling the infield, straw broom in hand, meticulously sweeping dirt off the outfield grass, back to where it belongs.

For God and Country: Notes on Filipino Nationalism

Despite my apparent popularity as I walk any street on the isle of Cebu– “hello!” “good morning!” “how are you!”– the white man a has a checkered history in this part of the world. Magellan was the first to arrive in 1521; he was promptly beheaded by Chief Lapu-Lapu, and his crew excused themselves in short order. The next Spaniards arrived some decades later, and had what must have been the surprise of their lives when the native Cebuanos whipped out a figurine of the Santo Niño that Magellan’s crew had left behind in their haste.

Taking it as a sign, apparently, the Spaniards set about their missionary business with diligence, and had a terrific run over the subsequent 300-odd years until William McKinley took the restive Philippines off their hands. Washington was planning to liberate the country until a bevy of Republican Senators intervened and, well, actually maybe we’d better hang on to those islands after all. Following further decades of colonial oppression and attendant rebellion, MacArthur fled before the Japanese, who got their wartime use out of the Philippines most notably as a death-march locale and a favored source for “comfort women.” Then the Americans came back and finally made good on their promise: Filipinos walked free in 1946.

∞  –  ∞  –  ∞  –  ∞  –  ∞

Hanging out the second story window of a professional development center in Cebu City a banner congratulates “our students who will be leaving to work in the UK and Canada!” It’s a commonly felt sentiment here. “Honestly, there’s nobody in this country who doesn’t look at that and feel some envy,” said my friend Steve (a Filipino). In the Philippines, it seems, there is no higher mark of achievement than to leave the Philippines. The government actively promotes it, urging people to move abroad if they can, and don’t forget to write– overseas Filipinos send home billions of dollars annually, making up a full 10% of the national GDP. Even the Pope has chimed in, discouraging birth control in the Philippines because human bodies are the country’s biggest export. (This in an increasingly overpopulated country: one of the only net rice importers in Asia.) Continue reading “For God and Country: Notes on Filipino Nationalism”

Reform in Burma: Opening for the U.S.

Cebu City, Philippines – In October I wrote about the halting, confusing, but encouraging political reforms in Burma (Myanmar) over the past year. It’s been an exciting few weeks since then. At the ASEAN summit in Bali last month, President Obama announced that Secretary of State Clinton would go to Burma– the first visit of a Secretary of State since John Foster Dulles went to Yangon in 1955. The decision to visit, advertised as a test of Burma’s commitment to democratic reform, was understood widely as a small carrot to encourage further progress. Many, however, have criticized the Obama administration for rushing to reward one of the world’s most despotic regimes for what have been mostly cosmetic, reversible changes.

The move was made possible largely thanks to the generous political cover of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s foremost opposition leader and President Obama’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, which sat out last year’s elections in protest, has decided to contest an upcoming election. Aung San Suu Kyi will herself run in the election, and is all but certain to be filling a seat in parliament. Though she has spent the better part of the past two decades under house arrest and has as good reason as anyone to suspect the motives of President Thein Sein’s incipient reforms, Aung San Suu Kyi has been upfront in her readiness to meet the government’s reforms in good faith.

Secretary Clinton sat down with Aung San Suu Kyi– it was their first face-to-face meeting after much previous correspondence– and met with President Thein Sein, addressing a number of issues that have kept the U.S. and Burma apart. Atop the agenda was Burma’s collusion with North Korea on missile and (possibly) nuclear technology. Secretary Clinton also pushed Thein Sein to continue internal reforms by freeing political prisoners and resolving ongoing conflicts with ethnic minority groups.

Coming out of the visit, Secretary Clinton announced that the U.S. would relax some restrictions on economic development aid, allowing the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to work in Burma, and promising $1.2 million in health, education and humanitarian projects to be administered by the United Nations. She and Thein Sein also discussed the possibility of upgrading diplomatic relations and exchanging ambassadors– a move that Aung San Suu Kyi has also advocated.

Continue reading “Reform in Burma: Opening for the U.S.”