While the COVID outbreak is in everyone’s mind and literally squats every single headline, Myanmar government has ordered the operators to block a handful list of websites.
The information came from a Telenor’s statement which said that the order was made under section 77 of the Telecommunications Law.
This law allows Myanmar authorities to instruct telecom license holders to block websites in “emergency situations” and conveniently cited the COVID-19 outbreak as a motivation for the blocks.
The statement said the telecom provider blocked 154 websites with “adult/explicit” content on March 23 and 67 supposedly “fake news” websites one week later. All the telecom operators in Myanmar are instructed to do the same.
Why does it sound wrong?
COVID-19 is an historic pandemic and the situation needs to be taken seriously. Such situation justifies that the government take very strict measures to contain and address the epidemic. There is nothing to say about that, and we are fully supportive of the Myanmar government for taking the appropriate and necessary actions to limit the outbreak.
That being said, we need to ask ourselves how blocking adult/explicit content is going to help in any way with the pandemic. What is the rationale behind this block? Is the government worried about Myanmar citizens spending time on these websites as they get bored at home? Would it prefer them hanging out in the streets and finding other way to entertain themselves?
On a funny note, one of the largest Porn website in the world, Pornhub has announced that it will “offer Pornhub Premium to the entire world in an effort to encourage the importance of staying home and practicing social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic”. Definitely a marketing coup from the Porn giant but if we had to oppose the two logic, the latter would probably make much more sense.
To our opinion, this large list of pornographic websites is just a decoy. The main topic is definitely in the second part of the statement: the list of local news website that allegedly share fake news and were blocked one week later.
According to The Irrawaddy, local independent websites owned by Development Media Group and the outlets Narinjara News, Mandalay In-Depth News, Mekong News, and Voice of Myanmar, among others, have all had their websites blocked by the order.
Why does it matter?
For those who do not know, Internet in Myanmar has never been filtered since the telecom liberalization in 2013.
Yes, it is for a fact that social networks in Myanmar are closely monitored. Over the past few years, Myanmar authorities have made a heavy use of the section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Act. This section criminalizes defamation on the internet with a penalty of up to three years in prison.
That being said, unlike its close neighbors Thailand and China for instance, Internet filtering did not exist in Myanmar before last month.
In Thailand, more than 70,000 websites are not accessible from the domestic networks. Of these websites, most blocks are related to defamation, lèse majesté offense, pornography, gambling or abortion. This censorship has been ongoing for more than a decade and the list of blocked websites keeps growing year-on-year.
This is a similar situation that we foresee for Myanmar. It seems that the emergency situation caused by the COVID was a perfect excuse to enforce a block that will cause precedence. From now on, it will be relatively easy for the government to request the operators to extend the block list.
It is definitely the end of an era for the Internet in Myanmar and a serious step back for a country that takes pride in the liberalization of its telecom sector.
So what now?
Now more than ever, if you want to protect your privacy and be able to browse freely any website, we recommend you to use a VPN. A VPN will not only hide your activity from any monitoring tool sitting in your operator network but will also allow you to visit the websites blocked by the domestic operators.
Herbert is a nom de plume.
I am an experienced telecom professional blogging about the fastest growing Internet market in the world: Myanmar.