RANGOON — Work on a replacement for Burma’s controversial and draconian Electronic Transactions Law has begun, according to information technology sector insiders in the former military-ruled country.
“We are preparing a new Electronic Transactions Law, which will be different from the old one,” said Myint Myint Than, director of the Myanmar Computer Federation (MCF), a government-linked industry organization.
The current law, one of the more garish relics of Burma’s five decades of military rule, dates to 2004 and includes up to 15 years’ jail time for “acts by using electronic transactions technology” deemed “detrimental to the security of the State or prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquility or national solidarity or national economy or national culture.”
Despite Burma’s recent political liberalization and loosening of press restrictions, the existing law’s nebulous and expansive remit continues to overshadow freedom of speech in Burma, though those involved in drafting the new provisions say that will change.
“We will adjust the law so it is appropriate for nowadays,” said Myint Myint Than, who told The Irrawaddy that comments and suggestions are being sought from the IT industry and other sectors with an interest in a new and less onerous code.
Nay Phone Latt, founder of the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO), an IT-focused NGO, says that a draft replacement law would be put to Burma’s legislature sometime in the coming months. “We will ask a parliamentarian, we don’t know who exactly yet, to discuss our draft,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Whether or not the consultation process leads to a less restrictive law remains to be seen, however. Burma’s Parliament recently passed a new publishing act that local journalists say retains aspects of military rule-era curbs, and last week, Burma’s national police chief and Deputy Home Affairs Minister Kyaw Kyaw Tun ruled out amending or binning the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act and the 1975 State Protection Law, which, similar to the Electronic Transactions Law, contain articles used in the past to jail writers and opponents of military rule.
Nyan Win, spokesman for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), told The Irrawaddy that the existing law “does not meet international standards and should be amended,” though he cautioned that there was not yet a clear timetable for changing the statute.
And despite the government issuing high-profile amnesties for hundreds of political prisoners as part of the reforms ongoing since 2011, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which tracks the number and welfare of political prisoners in Burma, says it has accounted for three political prisoners still in jail under the 2004 Electronic Transactions Law. The detainees, listed by the AAPP in an e-mail to The Irrawaddy, include one member of Burma’s air force and a former army officer imprisoned since 2005.
Ye Htut, Burma’s deputy information minister, recently estimated that half of the country’s Facebook accounts use fake names, acknowledging that part of the reason for this trend is Burma’s history of censorship and harsh punishments for people convicted under laws such as the Electronic Transactions Law.
MIDO’s Nay Phone Latt, a former political prisoner, was given a 20-year jail term for breaches of the vaguely worded 2004 law. He was granted an amnesty last year and is now involved in the consultation process for a replacement statute.
The existing law is littered with hazy, Orwellian clauses, such as a ban on “receiving or sending and distributing any information relating to secrets of the security of the State or prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquility or national solidarity or national economy or national culture.” Nay Phone Latt wants that language tightened up.
“Not everything can be removed, but many of the terms in the law need to be explained and have exact definitions in the wording,” he told The Irrawaddy, adding that the seven- to 15-year jail terms currently meted out for infractions will be reduced in the new law.
And while some of the new law’s drafters are hopeful that the replacement will take effect soon, the Burmese government has previously said that the Electronic Transactions Law would only be revoked or amended after the passing of a new telecommunications law, which is likely within the next three months.
Burma’s expanded telecoms sector will see increasing numbers of the local population access the Internet via mobile phones, following the June 27 awarding of two mobile network licenses to Norway’s Telenor and Qatar’s Ooredoo. The government wants three-quarters of Burma’s population to be connected to mobile networks by 2016.
Given the growing overlap between mobile telecommunications and Internet access, Myint Myint Than said “Internet may be included in the telecoms law.”
Telenor says it will provide data services covering 78 percent of Burma within five years of its launch in the second quarter of 2014, while Ooredoo says it will build 10,000 public Internet access points all over Burma and hit 84 percent of the country with data and voice coverage by 2019.
Currently only 7 percent of Burma’s estimated 50-60 million population are connected to the mobile network, according to President Thein Sein, low numbers that nonetheless far exceed the 1 to 2 percent of the population that have Internet access.
Improvements are much-needed, and on the cards. Sumitomo, NEC and NTT are slated to build high-speed Internet networks linking Rangoon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw, as well as lay fiber-optic networks in each of the three cities, while the government may seek foreign tenders for investment in Internet service provision in Burma.
But with Internet access in Burma set to widen in the coming years, human rights groups have warned that mobile networks and Internet service providers should not allow Burma’s security agencies to monitor private communications.
“We are saying that if the government seeks to intercept or do surveillance online, they need to get a warrant first at least,” Nay Phone Latt said.
And as Burma’s Internet access expands, the need for associated laws will grow in tandem, reckons Nay Phone Latt, who suggested that in addition to the new telecoms and electronic transactions laws, a separate cyber law is also needed.
“We need a law to address issues such as cyber-bullying, online child pornography and online defamation, incitement,” he said. “The new electronics law can include separate issues like e-commerce.”
E-commerce-oriented businesses are contributing to the new draft law. Wai Phyo Thu, a co-founder of Creative Web Design, said his company has been asked to send suggestions about what should go into the new dictum.
“I think and am hopeful that it will be changed for the better,” said Wai Phyo Thu, whose Rangoon-based web design business has increased “20 to 30 percent” since the start of Burma’s reforms. “In the past, people didn’t know what a website was for or how it worked for business. That is changing.”
He cautioned, however, that the new electronics law will take a lot of work if it is to enable IT and related businesses to prosper in Burma, where related new and reworked laws and institutions are being passed or established.
Last week Burma President Thein Sein signed off on a new law mandating an independent Central Bank, with new bank rules scheduled to come into force within three months. Wai Phyo Thu helps operate an online payment service—a local take on PayPal that he said has about 600 users and will most likely be affected by the new Central Bank shake-up.
“For example the new Central Bank will have a say in online banking and payments, perhaps, so this will also need to be looked at for the electronic or Internet law.”