Threat of Rights Abuses as Telecom Firms Gun for Licenses: HRW

By The Irrawaddy 20 May 2013

RANGOON — Just over a month before Burma is due to award telecoms licenses to two foreign companies or consortia, a major international rights group has warned that online censorship and government surveillance of mobile phone users remain a serious problem in the country.

Human Rights Watch on Sunday said it had written letters to the 12 international telecoms operators in the running for the licenses, urging bidders to ensure they are not complicit in these activities if they secure a license and asking them to publically report what they will do to avoid perpetuating government abuses of free expression and privacy.

“Telecom companies that rush into Burma before rights protections are in place risk complicity in illegal surveillance, censorship, and other repression,” Cynthia Wong, a senior researcher at the US-based HRW, said in a statement, as the group launched a 24-page report with recommendations on how to protect the country’s Internet and mobile phone users. “Telecom firms should press Burma’s government to bring its telecommunications laws into compliance with international rights standards.”

Burma’s government is currently drafting a new telecommunications law to replace some of the draconian legislation that was used by the former military regime to suppress information and imprison journalists and bloggers.

But HRW said the draft law it reviewed in March did not provide adequate safeguards against surveillance or censorship, with some provisions that even allowed for new ways to limit information and monitor online activity.

HRW said the draft allowed for prison sentences of up to 15 years for Internet users who threaten law and order; stir up communal tensions; act against national security, national solidarity or the national economy; or share state secrets. The draft also prohibits the distribution of “indecent or undesirable information,” although these terms are not adequately defined, the rights group said.

Burmese officials have pledged to revise the draft to address these concerns, HRW said, adding that a new draft was not yet available.

Burma’s telecoms industry offers huge untapped potential for foreign investors, as the country is currently one of the world’s least connected. In a population of about 60 million, only about 10 percent of people use mobile phones, according to government figures, while other researchers have put the mobile penetration rate even lower.

The two telecoms licenses drew interest from more than 90 international companies and consortia. In April the government selected 12 prequalifying bidders, including companies and consortia based in China, France, India, Japan, Malaysia, Norway, Qatar, Singapore, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Vietnam.

HRW urged the 12 bidders to develop policies for handling requests by Burma’s government for censorship, surveillance or network shutdowns in a way that minimizes invasions of privacy and the suppression of free expression, and to transparently publish information about their responses to such government requests once they are operating in the country.

Burma’s government is opening up its telecoms sector and reviewing laws on censorship as it transitions from a military government that for decades restricted access to technology such as data-enabled phones. The regime also handed out harsh sentences for online expression, and blocked news and critical political websites.

Online content about minority ethnic groups or pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was also heavily filtered, according to research by the OpenNet Initiative, a collaborative academic project that studies Internet surveillance and filtering practices in different countries.

Last year, however, as President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government continued to roll out its political and economic reforms, a study by the initiative showed that just 132 of 1,500 URLs tested were blocked, mostly related to pornography, drugs and alcohol as opposed to politics.

HRW welcomed Burma’s opening telecoms sector as an opportunity to promote human rights and democracy by allowing journalists, activists and civil society groups to access and spread information quickly, but warned that without proper protections from the government and companies, gains could be overshadowed by the continued threat of punishment for free expression.

“The government and telecommunications companies have a unique opportunity to bring an open Internet to Burma so that the Burmese people can express themselves online without fear,” Wong said. “But that won’t happen without real government reforms and meaningful corporate accountability.”