Mobile, Internet Companies Need Rights Safeguards as They Enter Market
May 19, 2013

The government and telecommunications companies have a unique opportunity to bring an open Internet to Burma so that the Burmese people can express themselves online without fear. But that won’t happen without real government reforms and meaningful corporate accountability.

Cynthia Wong, senior Internet and human rights researcher

(Washington) – International telecommunications companies risk being linked to human rights abuses if they enter the Burmese market before adequate protections are in place, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Burma’s human rights reforms thus far have been inadequate, including in the Internet and telecommunications sector, so companies entering the country should adopt robust safeguards to prevent and address any abuses linked to their operations.

The 24-page report, “Reforming Telecommunications in Burma: Human Rights and Responsible Investment in Mobile and the Internet,” outlines steps necessary to promote adequate protections for Internet and mobile phone users in Burma, and ways to foster responsible investment in Burma’s telecom sector. In January 2013, the Burmese government announced plans to open the country’s telecom sector to foreign investment and is scheduled to award two nationwide licenses to companies by June 27. As of April 11, the Telecommunications Operator Tender Evaluation and Selection Committee in Burma had approved 12 business entities to apply for the two licenses.

“Telecom companies that rush into Burma before rights protections are in place risk complicity in illegal surveillance, censorship, and other repression,” said Cynthia Wong, senior Internet and human rights researcher. “Telecom firms should press Burma’s government to bring its telecommunications laws into compliance with international rights standards.”

Burma’s president Thein Sein will visit Washington, DC, on May 20, the first such trip by a Burmese head of state in nearly five decades. Improved political relations and the easing of sanctions against Burma by the United States and the European Union could create an environment in which investment takes place without proper safeguards.

The Burmese government has set out growth of the telecommunications sector as a priority, declaring an ambitious goal of 50 percent mobile penetration by 2016 from the current estimates of 5 to 10 percent. The government lowered this goal from an initial target of 80 percent. This agenda presents a rare opportunity to maximize protections for human rights through telecommunications regulation and private operating agreements.

The Burmese government says it intends to enact a new telecommunications law by June to regulate the newly opened sector. A version of the law Human Rights Watch reviewed in March contains troubling provisions that could preserve or introduce new mechanisms for surveillance and censorship, with scant safeguards against government abuse. The law could also enlist the help of technology companies to limit access to information or monitor online activity.

In April 2013, Human Rights Watch communicated its concerns to Burmese officials involved in the legal reform process. Those officials told Human Rights Watch that a newer draft would address these concerns, but no new draft has been made available.

“The Burmese government has a chance to amend its draft law to ensure adequate protections for Internet and mobile phone users in Burma,” Wong said.

In addition, harsh laws enacted by the former military government that restrict access to information and technology remain in place, even if their use has greatly diminished since the formal end of military rule in 2011. For example, Burmese law still criminalizes owning fax machines and modems, or setting up a computer network unless the government has licensed the owner to possess that hardware and has allowed registration of the network. The government also penalizes actions that “spread false news,” as well as posting anything on the Internet that the government might deem harmful to security. While the current civilian government has said that it will review all rights-repressive laws, it has not publicly set out a timeline for such reforms.

Telecommunications companies should press for essential reforms to bring Burma’s legal framework up to international human rights standards before licenses are awarded in late June. In addition, while political reforms to date have been initiated primarily by President Thein Sein’s administration, the military still retains significant political power both in practice and under the 2008 constitution. Serious human rights abuses are occurring in Burma, and the new government’s reforms have not been solidified in law.

So long as draconian laws are in force, the government or military can selectively enforce those laws to silence bloggers and activists, with willing or coerced help from technology companies.

Telecommunications companies should at a minimum take certain steps before entering Burma’s telecommunications sector. Companies should: assess the human rights risks in the sector; put in place policies and procedures to mitigate those risks; act transparently by disclosing their actions to the public; and work with civil society, experts, and others to address the human rights problems.

“The government and telecommunications companies have a unique opportunity to bring an open Internet to Burma so that the Burmese people can express themselves online without fear,” Wong said. “But that won’t happen without real government reforms and meaningful corporate accountability.”