UN review of internet shutdowns including Myanmar
FEM has submitted a report to the United Nations Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights documenting how the Myanmar government and military have arbitrarily shutdown and slowed down access to the internet over the past three years.
The report covers Myanmar’s regulatory framework, the world’s longest internet shutdown, the digital coup, social media blocks, threats to digital businesses, attempts to use the courts, and the lack of international interest in the shutdowns.
The Myanmar government did not institute any form of internet shutdown until June 2019.
However, it did have the legal authority to order one. The Ministry of Transport and Communications (MoTC), via its internal telecom sector regulator, the Posts and Telecommunications Department (PTD), was legally able to order a shutdown of internet access without any legal oversight or safeguards. It was also practically able to shut down internet access as it owns and controls much of the telecommunications infrastructure via the state-owned telco, Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT).
Myanmar’s regulatory bodies are vulnerable to political interference and lack transparency. Both the PTD and MPT lack proper safeguards to protect regulatory and operational independence, making them vulnerable to political interference. Furthermore, the bodies’ decision-making processes are opaque and they rarely engage or consult with civil society. The 2013 Telecommunications Law envisioned an independent regulator, but this was never implemented.
Myanmar’s legal framework has no specific regulations relating to bandwidth throttling, but many legal provisions are vague and broad, meaning that they can be misused for such purposes.
The MoTC used this authority in June 2019, shutting down all internet access over an area in Rakhine and Chin States populated by over a million people. The MoTC shut down internet access by ordering telcos to withdraw service. The orders were not made public, and many presumed that the orders were covered by the Official Secrets Act and any publication could have faced criminal prosecution.
At the time, the Myanmar military was conducting severe human rights violations first against the Rohingya, and then against the Rakhine people, in order to “maintain the stability and law and order”. The Myanmar government said that it would only restore access when the “security situation” improved. Later, reasons were given for the internet shutdown, including that opponents of the military were using the internet to set off remote explosives. A presidential spokesperson said that the government would “fulfil every request made by” Myanmar’s military with regards to the shutdown.
Over the next year, the MoTC maintained the internet shutdown, although it occasionally slightly adjusted the area. For example, in August 2019, the MoTC restored some internet access in about half of the impacted area, but this decision was later reversed in February 2020.
Members of parliament, journalists, human rights defenders, and civil society organisations like FEM spoke out about the damaging effects and the economic cost of the internet shutdown on an already marginalised and underdeveloped population.
Under pressure, the government restored 2G access only, perhaps copying the Indian government’s similar strategy in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. The restoration did not substantively improve internet access for two reasons. Firstly, 2G is very slow and many modern applications such as Facebook or email do not function well on it. Secondly, 2G only allows a fixed number of connections, far fewer than is needed by the many members of the public, resulting in a lack of service for most users.
The internet shutdown did not end for 20 months, until after the 2021 military coup, when the military ordered the internet to be restored in an attempt to placate political opposition in Rakhine State. Approximately 1.4 million people have had no internet access for 600 days.
The military started disrupting the internet at 3 a.m. on 1 February 2021, shortly before the coup began. At 8 a.m., all mobile internet access and some fixed-line internet access were cut off nationwide. Over the next few weeks, the military shutdown internet access when the military’s coup was under threat, for example from anti-military protests. For example, on 6 February, the military shutdown internet access for 30 hours while there was a large nationwide protest against the coup. The military’s use of shutdowns to prevent free assembly became more entrenched, as the military created a digital curfew, shutting down internet access every night from 1 a.m. until 9 a.m. During the day, the military throttled internet speeds, partly to prevent the public from watching news coverage of the growing protest movement.
The MoTC directed the internet shutdowns, apparently under orders from the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA). In the first few days after the coup, one telecommunications company documented the existence of the directives, which cited “fake news” and the need to protect national stability. The company stopped documenting the directives it received, however, reportedly due to license-related pressure from the MoTC.
The partial internet shutdown was not sufficient to stem the protests, and on 15 March 2021, the military ordered telcos to shut down all mobile internet access across the country. This mobile internet shutdown lasted for months, and left only fixed line services working, and only during the daytime. FEM believes that at that time, just 0.5 to 5 percent of internet users were able to access the internet.
The Myanmar government did not block social media prior to the coup. Four days after the coup began, the military started blocking social media.
The MoTC first began ordering telecommunications companies to block websites in March 2020, and blocking directives significantly increased following the coup. From February 2021 onward, the MoTC issued a series of orders requiring telecommunications companies to block access to URLs and internet protocol (IP) addresses under Section 77 of the Telecommunications Law, which allows authorities to issue blocking orders to license holders in “emergency situations” Each of the directives are temporary but open-ended. No exact list of blocked sites has been published, and after Telenor publicly reported the directives it had received, it was forced to cease doing so under pressure from the authorities.
The MoTC ordered all ISPs, mobile service providers, and international gateway managers to block access to Facebook on 3 February 2021. The block, which was initially set to last until 7 February, was ostensibly meant to preserve stability and prevent fake news from “spreading misunderstanding.” WhatsApp was also blocked. Orders to block Twitter and Instagram followed on 5 February.
Many more secretive blocks on websites have reportedly been ordered since the coup, affecting popular platforms such as Wikipedia as well as national media outlets. In March, May, and August 2020, the MoTC issued a series of directives ordering internet providers to block more than 2,170 websites under Section 77 of the Telecommunications Law. Although the directives were not publicly released, well-known independent and local news outlets and websites based in conflict-affected areas, such as Rakhine State, soon became inaccessible.
On 25 May, the military began listing approved sites, meaning any blocking on them could be removed. The initial batch of some 1,200 approved internet services included a large contingent of banking and financial sites, entertainment sites like YouTube and Netflix, news sites such as the New York Times and US-based CNN, and gaming platforms. They did not include Facebook, which remains banned at the time of publication.
The military threatens businesses such as telcos in order to achieve their aims. The military, via the MoTC, has been issuing a significant number of directives to telecommunications companies, the legality of which the companies have questioned in some cases. The volume and nature of the directives raised concerns among civil society actors about whether telecommunications companies are operationally independent from the military. Several stakeholders have confirmed that the military’s detention of senior business leaders from other sectors likely encouraged telecommunications companies to implement military demands without complaint.
The military pressure in the form of directives and threats to staff led one of the nation’s main mobile providers, Norway’s Telenor, to sell its Myanmar operations to a Lebanon-based company in July 2021. Telenor had written off its business in the country in May, essentially predicting a total financial loss, but said at the time that it would operate as long as it could still “contribute positively”.
In most cases, there are no attempts to reverse measures. There were few attempts prior to the coup beginning, and even fewer, if any, since. At least one telecommunications company has reportedly pushed back against at least one MoTC order since the coup, with some success. However, any push back is done administratively, in phone calls or letters between telcos and MoTC staff. There have been no attempts to take decisions up in courts. This is likely because there is very little chance of success given the entrenched bias in favour of the government, and the military, within the judicial system.
Prior to the coup, there was comparatively little international support to end the world’s longest internet shutdown. Embassies and agencies, including from within the UN system, did not understand the seriousness of the impact upon the affected communities. There was little to link up the effect of the internet shutdown upon other human rights, including the effect upon economic development. At the same time, embassies and agencies were loath to challenge the government’s security reasoning for the internet shutdown.