Myanmar’s military junta is reportedly on the brink of passing its long-threatened cybersecurity law, which in its latest form would outlaw virtual private networks (VPNs), throttle access to social media networks, and force internet companies to hand over user data to the military.
The latest version of the Cyber Security Bill, which updates a draft released in February 2021, comes a year after the military seized power, plunging the country into a zero-sum struggle between the junta and a loose coalition of opponents. According to a report last week by Myanmar Now, the military administration submitted a revised version of the bill to stakeholders on January 13 and called for their feedback by January 28. The law is expected to be passed this week.
The February 2o21 draft was widely criticized for compelling internet providers to prevent or remove any content deemed to “cause hatred, destroy unity and tranquility,” any “untruthful news or rumors,” or anything that is “inappropriate” to Myanmar’s culture. It also forced internet providers to gather the personal data of users, store it for three years starting from the day of usage, and hand it over to military authorities upon request.
While the draft was withdrawn due to the strong opposition of Myanmar’s business community, the advocacy group Free Expression Myanmar (FEM) (which has also released an unofficial translation of the legislation) claims that the military’s new draft “repeats the repressive provisions of previous drafts and adds more, seriously threatening the safety and security of Myanmar’s digital space.”
According to FEM, the 2022 draft has added a whole new chapter on administrative sanctions for digital businesses, and a sixth vague category of expression that will be proscribed under the law: “expressions that damage an individual’s social standing and livelihood.” Since the definition makes no mention of any requirement that this expression be false, it effectively outlaws any criticisms of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing or any other senior junta official. The law also grants the junta additional powers to block access to digital businesses.
Perhaps the most significant addition, however, is the ban on VPNs, the use of which would carry a punishment of one to three years’ imprisonment and fines of up to 5 million kyats ($2,810). The networks, which mask data flows and allow users to circumvent local internet controls, have been used widely to access Facebook, which was blocked three days after the coup. “Given that VPNs are needed to access Facebook,” FEM noted, “any individual or business that posted on Facebook could in effect be creating evidence of a crime.”
In addition to criminalizing the use of VPNs, any individual encouraging the use of VPNs – say, a civil society group that encouraged activists to use VPNs or a phone shop that helped install them – could also face up to three years imprisonment and/or a stiff fine.
The draft has drawn fire from Myanmar’s business community. In a joint statement released on Friday, eight foreign chambers of commerce they were “deeply concerned” about the proposal and warn that the draft law “disrupts the free flow of information and directly impacts businesses’ abilities to operate legally and effectively in Myanmar.”
“VPNs are a legitimate security device that protect businesses against cyber and financial crimes, and allow for secure access for businesses to support the overall digital economy,” the statement said.
The fact that the junta withdrew its last draft of the Cyber Security Bill due to private sector opposition only to reintroduce a harsher draft this month speaks to how far the situation has deteriorated over the past year. Far from the smooth takeover that it probably expected, Myanmar’s military is now engaged in an omnidirectional struggle against civilian militias, ethnic armed groups, and the passive resistance of the mass of the population.
In this struggle, establishing its firm control over the internet is crucial in the junta’s eventual victory. In this area, as in so many others, it has taken months to drag Myanmar and its people back years.