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Burma's Internet Crackdown

It’s the “nuclear bomb” of Internet repression, says John Palfrey.

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.

John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

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.


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.

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