ASIA HAND Burning down Myanmar's Internet firewall
By Shawn W Crispin
YANGON - Myanmar maintains some of the world's most restrictive Internet
controls, including government-administered blocks on foreign news sites and
the use of popular e-mail services. But when politically sensitive fuel-price
protests broke out last month in the old capital city Yangon, government
censors proved powerless to stop the outflow of information and images over the
Internet to the outside world.
State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) authorities have increased their
efforts to curb local and foreign media coverage of the protests and their
heavy-handed response against demonstrators. Pro-government thugs have been
harass and intimidate local journalists and camera-carriers, some of whom have
had their mobile-phone services cut.
Authorities initially ordered a blackout on all local media coverage of the
protests and have since crafted and placed articles in mouthpiece media
criticizing the protest leaders they have detained. But the government is
losing decidedly its most crucial censorship battle: over the Internet. Despite
government bans, journalists and dissidents continue to send information and
video clips of the protests over the Internet to foreign-based news
Exile-run media have published detailed blow-by-blow accounts and explicit
video clips of government crackdowns. Popular video-sharing website YouTube is
flush with footage of the protests posted by citizen journalists under Burmese
names, including one posting by a user who apparently uses the same name as
SPDC leader General Than Shwe. The Thailand-based, exile-run Irrawaddy - a la
CNN - has called on the Myanmar population to play the role of citizen
journalists and send information to their newsdesk.
So why have the Myanmar authorities, who had apparently deployed some of the
most restrictive cyber-controls anywhere in the world, so utterly failed to
stem the outflow of sensitive information? Myanmar's military government
deploys various software-based filtering techniques aimed at severely limiting
the content the country's citizens can access online.
Most Internet accounts in Myanmar are designed to provide access only to the
limited Myanmar intranet, and the authorities block access to popular e-mail
services such as Gmail and Hotmail. According to the OpenNet Initiative (ONI),
a joint research project on Internet censorship issues headed by Harvard
University, Myanmar's Internet-censorship regime as of 2005 was among the "most
extensive" in the world.
The research noted that the Myanmar government "maintains the capability to
conduct surveillance of communication methods such as e-mail, and to block
users from viewing websites of political opposition groups and organizations
working for democratic change in Burma". An ONI-conducted survey of websites
containing material known to be sensitive to the regime found in 2005 that 84%
of the pages they tested were blocked. The regime also maintained an 85%
filtration rate of well-known e-mail service providers, in line with, as ONI
put it, the government's "well-documented efforts to monitor communication by
its citizens and to control political dissent and opposition movements".
Myanmar's technical censorship capabilities were also reputedly bolstered by
the regime's procurement and implementation of filtering software produced and
sold by US technology company Fortinet. According to ONI's research, the regime
was as of 2005 continuing to seek to refine its censorship regime, which showed
no signs of lessening and could worsen as it moves to more sophisticated
Eschewing the censors
Two years later, thanks to the growing global proliferation of proxy servers,
proxy sites, encrypted e-mail accounts, http tunnels and other creative
workarounds, the cyber-reality in Myanmar is actually much less restricted than
ONI's research indicated.
To be sure, official Internet penetration rates are abysmally low in Myanmar,
because of the prohibitive cost and bureaucratic hassle, including the
provision of a signed letter from the relevant porter warden that the applicant
is not "politically dangerous", to secure a domestic connection.
However, those low figures mask the explosion of usage at public Internet
cafes, particularly in Yangon, where a growing number are situated in
nondescript, hard-to-find locales. All of the cafes visited in recent months by
this correspondent were equipped with foreign-hosted proxy sites or servers,
which with the help of the cafe attendant allowed customers to bypass
government firewalls and connect freely to the World Wide Web - including
access to otherwise blocked critical news sources.
One particularly popular proxy site in Myanmar's cyber-cafes is
Glite.sayni.net, popularly known as Glite. According to the site's India-based
administrator, the Glite program has been downloaded by tens of thousands of
Internet surfers and resides on hundreds of private and public servers in
Myanmar, allowing its users to access Gmail accounts that the government has
tried to block.
The authorities have so far moved to block three particular Glite versions, but
the program's administrator says he has in response designed and set up more
sites, of which he estimates there are currently 11 unblocked versions, some of
which are housed in support site forums in a format that is difficult to search
He says Glite is also designed not to be indexed by search sites, which gives
Myanmar's Internet cafes their own private and secure access and makes censor
search-engine results for its site seem deceptively sparse. Although the site's
administrator says he is "apolitical", he believes Myanmar's junta is "fighting
a losing battle" in trying to censor the Internet.
Other popular proxy servers in Yangon's cafes are Your-freedom.net and
Yeehart.com, both of which similarly maintain new, updated versions to bypass
government firewalls. The same is true for various encrypted e-mail services,
including the hyper-secure Hushmail.com, which many local and exile-based
journalists have been trained to use and technology experts say the junta lacks
the expertise to crack.
The proliferation of evasive small-scale technologies, some like Glite
maintained by private individuals with a penchant for programming, have in
these restive times left Myanmar's junta with few viable censorship options but
to unplug the Internet altogether. Indeed, there have been recent reports of
rolling Internet blackouts across Yangon's cyber-cafes, particularly during the
late afternoons, when journalists would normally file their stories.
So far the authorities seem reluctant to make yet another policy decision, on
top of last month's hyper-inflationary fuel-price hikes, that would impinge on
national livelihoods, particularly the urban-based business class, who judging
by their numbers in Yangon's cyber-cafes have grown increasingly reliant on the
Internet for cheap communications. That, of course, could change in the weeks
ahead if the street protests mount and the government cracks down more
Yet the comprehensive news coverage that has leaked out of Myanmar represents
an important victory for the global forces fighting to keep the Internet free
from government censorship. And when the dust finally clears on Myanmar's
popular protests, depending on the eventual outcome, the information-driven
movement could one day be known as Myanmar's Glite revolution.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be
reached at email@example.com.