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The case for open internet in Myanmar

11 May,2021 - Yangon | 3 mins read

Myanmar’s superior connectivity was built on the combined experience of almost all other countries: Open internet access fuels growth. Whitelisting is a practice that will not give the same benefits – and should be abandoned.

 

After opening the telecoms sector in 2014, Myanmar’s connectivity had become among the fastest in South East Asia, and its internet among the most open in the world. Until 20 June 2019, there had been no documented network restrictions or shutdowns of the internet in Myanmar. This allowed users to access a plethora of information and the opportunities to express themselves openly online for the first time, while also allowing digital financial services, e-commerce and other digital services to thrive. This contributed strongly to GDP growth and providing economic opportunities to millions. According to KPMG, the increase in mobile and 3G penetration contributed an additional 5.2% of Myanmar’s GDP and in 2017, Frontier Economics observed a GDP contribution from the telecoms sector of 1.2%.

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Since June 2019, Myanmar has experienced gradually increasing restrictions on the internet. Restrictions have ranged from network shutdowns in Rakhine, censorship of selected services (called blacklisting), a nationwide full service shutdown, nightly nationwide internet shutdowns, to limiting access to specific services (called whitelisting) on mobile data, which we see today nationwide.

 

Whitelisting and blacklisting are both approaches to restrict the flow of information over the internet, but their impact on individuals’ access to information are very different. Blacklisting allows access to everything except what is specifically identified as harmful, i.e. put on a blacklist. Whitelisting, on the other hand, means that only a selected set of services are permitted while denying access to all others.

 

There are multiple challenges with the whitelisting approach currently being used on mobile data in Myanmar. They can be classified into three types: principle, technical, and most importantly, precedent.

 

First and foremost, from a principled perspective, whitelisting is a stark contrast to the fundamental idea of the internet. Telenor believes in an open internet and net neutrality, where all services are accessible without discrimination. Any disproportionate restriction, blacklisting or whitelisting, is against the principle of an open internet, and the restriction of specific services is against the principle of net neutrality. As Myanmar witnessed between 2014-2019, open and neutral internet fosters innovation, economic growth and job opportunities. In the midst of a national crisis and an active pandemic, open and neutral access to internet is more important than ever to spread knowledge and information, ensure security and access to essential services.

 

From a technical perspective, a whitelisting approach is both challenging to implement, and introduces new risks. The internet is an interconnected web of services – one whitelisted target service may call upon multiple other services to run successfully. For a particular target service to work as intended, all other services it calls upon will also have to be whitelisted. This requires a high level of technical expertise and diligence. A whitelisting approach also increases the risk of cyberattacks, as IP addresses used by essential services could be exposed, requiring greater investments in cybersecurity from every whitelisted target service. Where this technical capacity and investment is not readily available, whitelisting at best would fail to meet its intended objective, and at worst, could lead to cyberattacks on essential services.

 

Most importantly, from a precedent perspective, a whitelisting approach on mobile data may lead to the propagation of a highly restrictive type of internet that will only serve to limit the growth of Myanmar’s economy and deny vital access and economic opportunities for its people, its entrepreneurs and its innovators. Therefore, Telenor is deeply concerned and continues to urge the authorities that the current limited access to specific services should only be temporary and a step towards the immediate full restoration of internet services.

 

Telenor believes that it is only with an open internet that Myanmar’s economy can develop, and its people stay well-informed, safe, secure and healthy.

 

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