Censor’s report card: Earlier this year, the OpenNet Initiative, a collaboration of four universities, said that Burma was one of the worst censors of the Internet. The group found that Burma’s strongest filtering was of political sites, with substantial filtering of other sites. It also found that blocked content changed frequently (low consistency) and that it wasn’t easy for a citizen to understand the filtering (medium transparency). The group’s testing, carried out in 2006 and early 2007, used a combination of tools that remotely test filtering conditions within given countries.
Credit: OpenNet Initiative
TR: What happened last week?
JP: It’s hard to know exactly what happened on a technical level, but politically, it seems pretty clear at this point. The monks and other activists began their protests. The military did not crack down right away, I believe because they feared the impact of citizen journalists posting images and videos of brutality to the Web. The military decided that they were going to take more-severe steps, so they cut access to the Internet through the ISPs, particularly in cities like Yangon and Mandalay. They also cut off access to cell service and otherwise. I believe that this Burmese citizen’s blog, published by Global Voices, contains an accurate account of what happened last week.
TR: How does this shutdown compare with other state-controlled actions you’ve documented?
JP: I’ve never seen anything like this cutoff to the Internet at such a broad scale so crudely and completely. They’ve taken the nuclear-bomb approach. We’ve witnessed what appear to be denial-of-service-type attacks during elections, for instance, but nothing so large-scale like this shutdown. Still, information has leaked out. So the military junta has found that given the many roots to the global telecommunications infrastructure, it’s very hard to cut off a place entirely.
TR: How, exactly, have people been getting information out?
JP: I really don’t know. We’ve tried not to ask people what they are doing in unprotected e-mails, because of possible surveillance. There’s a “first, do no harm” principle here.
TR: Generally, then, what’s the next step for Burmese citizens?
JP: Unfortunately, if the Internet is cut off entirely, it’s hard to imagine a good way around the blocking. Satellite imagery has gotten in and out, it seems, so perhaps there’s hope through that technology, but it would be very risky for those on the ground participating in such a system. The hope, I suppose, is that the military junta restores at least some form of Internet and cell access. The most clever people in Burma will find a way to use it to get information through the blockages. But the future of access to information about Burma, and by people within Burma, looks bleak.