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Burma 4 July 2006

Internet increasingly resembles an Intranet as foreign services blocked

Reporters Without Borders said the Burmese Internet increasingly resembles an Intranet as more and more foreign electronic services have been cut.

Email providers Gmail, as well as Internet telephone services Gtalk and Skype, have been blocked in Burma since the end of June. It appears however that the blocking of this Internet services is not absolutely constant and that Internet-users can occasionally access them.

"The decision to ban Gtalk and Skype were taken partly for financial reasons. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services were breaking into the profitable long-distance telephone call market, in which the state has a monopoly," said the press freedom organisation.

"But it is also since, like webmails, this type of communication is very difficult to monitor. The Burmese Internet is more controlled than the Net in China," it added.

The authorities, who already block access to Yahoo! and Microsoft (Hotmail) email services, want to force Burmese Internet-users to use Mail4U from Myanmar Teleport (formerly Bagan Cybertech), a state enterprise which filters and controls email content.

At the end of May, as Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest was being extended, the Internet was completely cut off in Burma. All that was accessible was local sites of Myanmar Wide Web, a national Intranet made up of websites approved by the regime. The Myanmar Posts and Telecom (MPT), one of the departments of the Ministry of Communications, Post and Telegraphs, said the cut was due to technical problems linked to optical cables under the seabed off the coast of Singapore. But, according to a journalist on the Democratic Voice of Burma, the cut was in reality "a ruse" allowing the authorities to upgrade their Internet-filtering programmes.

Officially, Burma says it wants to modernise and prioritise new technology but in fact the military junta does its utmost to control information circulating on the Net.

Every computer in the country has to be registered with the MPT, with those failing to do so liable to a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. It is the state which licences Internet cafés. They are forced to ask clients to produce proof of identity and to install software which takes screen captures every five minutes. All the data has to be kept on CDs and regularly sent to the authorities.

The Burmese authorities have ordered filtering of independent online newspapers, websites defending human rights or promoting democracy and publications supporting the claims of the Karen people (an anti-government ethnic group in the east of the country). Internet users can access these sites and webmail by using proxy servers or tunnelling techniques (See Reporters Without Borders’ Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-dissidents). The OpenNet Initiative has shown that the junta has, since May 2004, been using Internet filtering software sold by the US firm Fortinet.

Finally, the creation of a website has to be approved by the authorities, and under a 2000 law, anyone discussing political issues online or posting articles "likely to damage the interests of the Myanmar Union" or "directly or indirectly harmful to state security policy" is liable to a six-month prison sentence.

Reporters Without Borders considers Burma to be one of the 15 "black holes in the Internet".


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