Burma Latest Country To Use U.S. Technology To Control Internet Access

A new report by the OpenNet Initiative shows how Burma, or Myanmar, is one of several countries blocking open access to the Internet.

K.C. Jones, Contributor

October 12, 2005

4 Min Read

While the Internet has become a great equalizer -- a place where just about anyone can air views on just about anything -- it has become a tool for controlling people in countries where freedoms are already restricted.

The latest in a series of reports by OpenNet Initiative shows that Burma, or Myanmar, is one of several countries blocking open access to the Internet. Like other governments where Internet use is booming, it's using American software for control.

According to the report, "Internet Filtering in Burma in 2005," government officials there are using Internet technology to monitor e-mail. The Burmese government - which the U.S. State Department reports is accused of killing, beating, torturing and forcing ethnic minorities into labor - also blocks political dissent on the Internet.

Web sites with content deemed objectionable are blocked. The type of content that is commonly censored includes pornography, drugs, gambling, entertainment and political discussion.

ONI reports that Burma recently switched from open-source Internet filtering software to Fortiguard, from Fortinet in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Fortinet spokesperson Michelle Spolver, said Fortinet does all of its business through distributors and resellers. Fortinet does not have any distributors in Burma and requires companies ordering its products to follow U.S. regulations including those prohibiting sales to embargoed regimes, she said.

"We don't know how this customer got our products," she said. "They could get it on eBay essentially."

Spolver said the company is looking into the matter, but she was unsure whether Fortinet planned to take any action regarding the use of its products in Burma.

Though Burma is the most recent place where ONI has shined a spotlight on control, it's not the only one.

ONI has also documented restrictions in Singapore, Iran, China, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Some countries, such as Cuba, known to restrict the free flow of information over the Internet are not included in ONI's reports, which focus on Asia and the Middle East.

ONI, which has anonymous users testing systems in several countries, states that Singapore limits access to the Internet rather than relying on technical means to monitor communications and block sites.

ONI characterizes Iran's Internet filtering system as "one of the world's most substantial censorship regimes" in a report on access in Iran in 2004 and 2005. The report states that Iran is among several countries, particularly in the Middle East, where governments rely on local languages (Farsi in Iran) to monitor Internet activity. It's also among a growing number of regimes using software developed by companies in the United States, according to ONI.

Ronald Deibert University of Toronto researcher and one of the Iran report's authors had harsh words for those producing software used by authoritative governments exerting control over citizens.

"Our report on Iranian filtering of the Internet shows that not only are freedom of speech and access to information under threat, but that there is a growing commercial market for the technologies that diminish them," he said in a prepared statement. "This thriving censorship market – spread like a virus from China to Iran to an increasing number of countries worldwide – calls into question not only the trumpeted slogans of high-tech firms that the Internet represents freedom and connectivity, but simplistic divisions between 'us' and 'them' as well."

The Iranian report targeted Secure Computing, based in San Jose, Calif. Repeated attempts to reach representatives for were unsuccessful.

ONI reports that the worst filtering is taking place in China, which recently made news gaining information about dissident activity from American technology companies, including Yahoo!. According to ONI, the Chinese government is constantly updating and changing the way it restricts and monitors Internet use.

"China operates the most extensive, technologically sophisticated, and broad-reaching system of Internet filtering in the world," according to a 2004-2005 ONI report. "China's intricate technical filtering regime is buttressed by an equally complex series of laws and regulations that control the access to and publication of material online."

Other countries are trying curb visits to sites with content that offends Muslim sensibilities and laws. Those countries tend to over-block because their systems focus on keywords, according to ONI.

(Editor's Note: A brief follow-up to this article can be found here.)

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