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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar junta targets sweeping data access with cybersecurity bill

Telecoms face content and service controls, and civil groups cite privacy threat

Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing speaks during a Feb. 3 meeting. (MRTV/Handout via REUTERS)    © Reuters

YANGON -- Myanmar's new military regime is preparing to grant its telecommunications ministry sweeping control over data access as well as online content and service, a week after seizing power from Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government.

Initially drafted by Suu Kyi's government, the legislation would permit government entities to access personal information for security reasons and designate a place for online service providers to store consumer data, based on a copy of the 36-page document seen by Nikkei Asia and provided by a senior industry source.

The proposed bill would require providers to "prevent, remove, destroy and cease" in "a timely manner" a range of content on their platforms, including any that inspire hate, disrupt unity or damage stability or peace as well as any "written or verbal statements" against the law. It would also empower the state to conduct surveillance for various reasons and shut down any online service.

"We are aware of the draft cybersecurity bill and are in the process of reviewing it," said a spokesperson for Norwegian telecom company Telenor, which was licensed in Myanmar by Thein Sein while he served as president in the 2010s. The spokesperson declined to comment further.

It is not clear if the military has changed the bill drafted by the elected government after the coup. However, the move is the latest sign that the junta intends to swiftly exert control as it faces defiant pro-democracy rallies driven by social media spreading across the country.

The document says the legislation seeks to support Myanmar's digital economy while protecting personal data and preventing cybercrime and other online actions harming national peace and sovereignty.

It was addressed to mobile operators and telecom license holders on Tuesday for comment, according to a joint statement signed by over 150 civil society groups. The junta, according to the cover letter seen by Nikkei Asia, is giving license holders until Monday to respond.

Yangon-based business owners say data network shutdowns and social media platform bans imposed over the past week have already disrupted company operations and undermined business confidence.

Meanwhile, signatories of the joint statement allege that the proposed measures violate freedom of expression, data protection and privacy.

"As the 'bill' is drafted by the current military regime to oppress those who are against its rule, and to restrict the mobilization and momentum of online resistance, we strongly condemn this action by the current military regime in accordance with our democratic principles," the statement read.

Myanmar's internet freedom has plummeted in recent years, with the now-lifted service ban in Rakhine state and the blocking of ethnic news and activist websites cited in an October report by U.S. research institute Freedom House and local rights group Free Expression Myanmar. Businesses and digital rights groups had called on authorities to reform the telecom law, the legal basis for blocking service and sites.

Yet the junta's proposal is "significantly worse" for privacy and censorship than the current framework, said Oliver Spencer, legal counsel to Free Expression Myanmar.

"If implemented by the military, the 'law' will present an existential threat to both telcos and platforms such as Facebook," Spencer said. "It gives the military even more power to surveil and control the internet, including a provision that Myanmar user data must be stored at a place designated by the military, and giving the military full and unfettered access."

A major investor in Myanmar's digital services industry said the proposals restrict innovation, increase red tape and raise the cost of doing business, which would hurt investor sentiment and consumer rights.

"Such a draconian law would severely limit the freedom of speech and access to the internet. It would go against the values of many foreign investors and would seriously deter foreign investments coming to Myanmar," he told Nikkei Asia.

The investor said he fears that Myanmar looks to adopt a digital regulatory framework akin to that of China or Vietnam.

Rewriting the rules governing the internet, while already clamping down on democracy supporters, will force young and old Myanmar professionals -- who enjoyed limited freedom under the civilian government -- to leave the country "in droves," he said.

"The country will have a serious brain drain issue," the investor said. "Again, businesses and the public will suffer."

Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, in his first televised address since the coup, said the regime welcomes foreign investments. The speech was seen partly as an effort to persuade investors to stay despite the rising risks of sanctions and political instability.

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