It should come as no surprise that the Internet in Myanmar, the southeast Asian
state once known as Burma and in the iron grip of a military cabal for decades,
is heavily filtered and carefully monitored.
But a new report from the OpenNet Initiative, a human rights project
linking researchers from the University of Toronto, Harvard Law School and Cambridge
University in Britain, once again raises tough questions about the use of filtering
technologies - often developed by Western companies - by autocratic governments
bent on controlling what their citizens see on the Web.
Myanmar "employs one of the most restrictive regimes of Internet filtering
worldwide that we have studied," said Ronald J. Deibert, a principal investigator
for the OpenNet Initiative and the director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk Center
for International Studies at the University of Toronto.
Myanmar now joins several nations, including China, Iran and Singapore,
in relying on Western software and hardware to accomplish their goals, Mr. Deibert
for example, have all come under fire recently for providing technology or otherwise
cooperating with the Chinese government to enable it to monitor and censor Internet
In the case of Myanmar, the regulations and customs are quite clear. The Digital
Freedom Network, a human rights group based in New Jersey, notes that among
things forbidden by Myanmar's Web regulations, introduced in January 2000, are
the posting of "any writings directly or indirectly detrimental to the
current policies" of the government. The rules also forbid "any writings
detrimental to the interests of the Union of Myanmar."
As with their six previous reports, OpenNet researchers combined a variety
of network interrogation tools and the cooperation of a volunteer in Myanmar
"who remains anonymous as a safety precaution," the report noted,
to test the accessibility of various Web sites.
Sites like Hotmail, which offer free e-mail services, were routinely blocked,
forcing Myanmar citizens to use one of the two officially approved (and easily
monitored) Internet service providers for their e-mail.
And of 25 sites dealing with Burmese political information and content - from
freeburmacoalition.com to burmalibrary.org
- a full 84 percent were blocked.
"There's a cat-and-mouse game going on between states that seek to control
the information environment and citizens who seek to speak freely online,"
said John Palfrey, the director of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet
and Society and a researcher with the OpenNet Initiative. "Filtering technologies,
and the way that they are implemented, are becoming more sophisticated."
Not surprisingly, repressive governments have been eager buyers of those technologies.
The OpenNet study suggests that Myanmar, which has long been under
American sanctions, including the 2003 Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, has
recently migrated from an open-source filtering technology to a proprietary
system called Fortiguard, developed by Fortinet, in Sunnyvale, Calif.
That upgrade, which appears to have taken place as the OpenNet researchers
were conducting their analysis, may have made censorship even more efficient
and widespread than reflected in the new survey.
For its part, Fortinet says that it uses "a two-tier distribution model,"
according to a company spokeswoman, Michelle Spolver, meaning that the company
sells all of its products to resellers, who sell to end-users.
"Our intent is to fully comply with the law, and Fortinet does not condone
doing business with U.S.-embargoed or sanctioned countries," Ms. Spolver
Yet the Fortinet system appears to be hard at work in Myanmar.
"The Myanmar state has put out a Web page talking about it, we've procured
a block page that has hallmarks of Fortinet's system, and have heard from people
on the ground that it's being implemented," Mr. Palfrey said.
"It's related to the problems that Yahoo and Microsoft and others
are facing in China," Mr. Palfrey said, "but here the issue is that
these technology security companies are directly profiting from the censorship