The Burmese government’s recent shutdown of the country’s Internet connections amid pro-democracy protests was a new low for what is already one of the most censorious nations in the world. Earlier this year, the OpenNet Initiative–a collaboration among researchers at Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Toronto–found that the nation’s rulers blocked 85 percent of e-mail service providers and nearly all political-opposition and pro-democracy sites. (See “Internet Increasingly Censored.”) All this in a nation in which less than 1 percent of citizens have Internet access in the first place.
Last week–after images of the beatings of Buddhist monks and the killing of a Japanese photographer leaked out via the Internet–Burma’s military rulers took the ultimate step, apparently physically disconnecting primary telecommunications cables in two major cities, in a drastic effort to stop the flow of information from Burma to the rest of the world. It didn’t completely work: some bloggers apparently used satellite links or cellular phone services to get information outside the country.
John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School (which has posted this blog on recent events in Burma), explains Burma’s repression techniques–including what he calls the “nuclear-bomb approach” it deployed last week.
Technology Review: On the best days, what version of the Internet is available to Burmese citizens?
John Palfrey: The Burmese citizens have access to a sharply limited version of the Internet, which they call the Myanmar Internet. The military junta seems to have been thinking of the Internet as more like a local area network [LAN] than like the World Wide Web. They see the Internet as an internal network with as few links to the outside world as they can manage, particularly when it comes to political information. Burma is alongside places like North Korea in terms of offering one of the most limited, crudely blocked versions of the Internet in the world. On the best days.
TR: On a technical level, how is the Myanmar Internet controlled and monitored?
JP: The military control the two main Internet Service Providers [ISPs] in Burma. Our testing, using technical tools and local reports, through the OpenNet Initiative over the past several years has shown that these ISPs engage in a pervasive level of filtering of political content. They also block tools that might foster greater communications among activists and ordinary citizens, such as free Web mail and some blogging services.
TR: Have Burmese citizens had any way around these measures?
JP: Yes, the people of Burma who wish to access the broader Internet have been able to use proxy services to get around the filtering traditionally. The revolution under way right now is being referred to by some as the “Glite revolution” after a proxy server popular in Burmese cybercafes, called Glite. The military have had every reason to know that people have been getting around filtering when they really want to, and certainly able to get images and movies and text out of the country–at least until the military pulled the plug altogether.