Written by Phyo Thiri Lwin (Edited by Jenna Fung)
Back in February 2021, there were two nationwide Internet outages in Myanmar. On February 5, the military council started banning social media and messaging apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp by using the blacklist method to users as an immediate response to interrupt international communication and cut off the information flow.
“The blacklisting approach involves defining what entities to be blocked. A blacklist is an access control mechanism over the elements such as email addresses, users, URLs, IP addresses, domain names, file hashes, etc. Malicious or suspicious entities on the blacklist will be denied access or running rights on a network or a system.” (CTI, 2019)
Since the military council is using such a method to limit what the citizens can access on the Internet, people in Myanmar have to use Virtual Private Network (VPNs) to get access to the Internet, including social media and messaging apps. Mostly, Internet connectivity is through mobile data Internet service, fiber to the home Internet service, and wireless broadband Internet service in Myanmar. In Myanmar, there are 23.65 million Internet users, 29 million social media users, and 69.43 million mobile connections in January 2021. There are 27 million Facebook users in total and 99.8% of them access through their mobile devices.
On March 15, the mobile data Internet service was temporarily suspended. Later on April 1, the wireless broadband Internet service was also suspended. Before the suspension of the wireless broadband Internet service, public Wi-Fi service and international roaming service were also suspended. That’s why fiber to the home Internet service ( also known as FTTH Service) is the only service available in the whole country without connectivity. People of Myanmar felt like returning to the olden time – without connection with the rest of the world. Consequently, the Internet has become a virtual repression policy tool in the politics of Myanmar nowadays.
“Whitelisting tackles the same challenges as blacklisting but uses the opposite approach. Instead of creating a list of threats, we can create a list of permitted entities and block everything else. That approach is based on trust, and the default is to deny anything new unless it’s proven to be acceptable. That results in a much stricter approach to access control.” (CTI, 2019)
In May, the mobile data Internet service and wireless broadband Internet were re-opened by the military council using the whitelist method. The military junta allowed people to use applications related to digital financial services such as AYA Mobile Banking, KBZ Pay, etc. on May 6 at first. But one of the Internet service providers (ISPs), Ooredoo mobile data Internet service, also allows users to watch videos on YouTube and search on Google. There was also a rumor spreading that people can use Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and Tik Tok through the Ooredoo mobile data internet service by using VPNs.
During the “Spring Revolution of Myanmar”, the protestors used social media heavily to engage and advocate for the restoration of democracy, which I believe was one of the reasons why the military council blocked access to social media, including Facebook and Twitter. As a result, the people of Myanmar cannot communicate with the world through the Internet. After May 20, the military council whitelists 1,200 sites which include over 750 services and 450 domains, but the rest remains on the blacklist including popular social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Moreover, there was a rumor spreading that the country’s telecom and ISPs were ordered by the military council during February to install intercept spyware on users’ devices to eavesdrop on the communications of citizens. Such a rumor was later confirmed by the military council to be true that ordered the installation of spyware according to an article by Reuters (Potkin & Mcpherson, 2021).
In reality, using the blacklist method to interrupt international communication, and cut off the information flow in Myanmar, did not put a lot of impact on hindering the protest in most of the urban and rural areas. Besides, people could advocate the people with mass #hashtag trending Twitter campaigns such as the #MilkTeaAlliance campaign which is known as the “22222 Myanmar Spring Revolution”.
Unfortunately, after the suspension of the mobile data Internet service and wireless broadband Internet service, Myanmar’s digital economy was deeply affected, because many digital services cannot function properly without the Internet, including digital payment and transfer services, digital banking services, and food delivery services in most of the area.
Though the military council has adopted the whitelist method on May 20 to “save” their digital economy and the banking and finance sector, it does not work as expected, because what is damaged is damaged. Additionally, restricting access to the Internet is one of the violations of our human rights. For example, our right to freedom of expression online is limited because of such implementation. Therefore, international stakeholders should pay attention to these violations and urge them before blacking out as a whole country.
- CTI. Blacklisting vs. Whitelisting. (2019, August 19). CTI, Consolidated Technologies, Inc. Retrieved from https://consoltech.com/blog/blacklisting-vs-whitelisting/#:~:text=Whitelisting%20is%20a%20much%20stricter,when%20using%20the%20whitelisting%20approach.
- Potkin, F. & Mcpherson, P. (2021, May 18). How Myanmar’s military moved in on the telecoms sector to spy on citizens. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/how-myanmars-military-moved-telecoms-sector-spy-citizens-2021-05-18/.
- Kemp, S. (2021, February 12). Digital 2021 Myanmar. Datareportal. Retrieved from https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2021-myanmar.
- Nikkei Asia. (2021, May 25). Myanmar allows Tinder but axes dissent havens Twitter, Facebook. Nikkei Asia. Retrieved from https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Myanmar-Coup/Myanmar-allows-Tinder-but-axes-dissent-havens-Twitter-Facebook?fbclid=IwAR15FrRCwuK8KMOeJMEL5JFMc8nk57U7cLM-fyYzyVjNhQc-XNRt4Lutre0.
About the writer
Phyo Thiri Lwin is a social science master’s student at the Yangon University of Economics. She is passionate about Internet Governance activities to initiate in her region. She joined yIGF 2020 Virtual Camp and she started her Internet Governance Journey through it. She also participated in the APrIGF and explored to get more about the current issues in the Asian-Pacific Region through it. She then continues her IG journey as a student ambassador at the NetMission Academy 2021 and a youth committee member at Youth IGF Myanmar. She is interested in cybersecurity and privacy particularly. Currently, her interests related to the internet issues are misinformation and disinformation, and accessible internet, which are the biggest concerns in her region. She is also trying to help the people to be aware of those issues and sharing reliable information on the other hand.