When Google Comes to Town

When Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt travels to Burma on Friday, he will be in for a pleasant surprise. After North Korea, another country that the top Google exec has recently visited, Burma is bound to seem like a breath of fresh air.

 

Sophie Schmidt, the Google chief’s daughter, accompanied her father on his Pyongyang visit in January and had some interesting observations to make about their encounter with some students at an e-library at Kim Il-Sung University.

Describing the 90 or so students she saw working at their computer consoles, Schmidt’s daughter noted that none of them actually seemed to be doing anything. Nor did they interact at all with their visitors.

“Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli,” she wrote. “They might as well have been figurines.”

Burma will undoubtedly be a very different story. It may be one of the most backward nations on earth in terms of its exposure to the Internet—which is currently accessible to only around 1 percent of the population—but it is also a country with a vibrant media culture that is constantly in search of new ways to reach ever wider audiences.

Among the tiny number of Burmese who spend time online, social media has become almost a way of life. They avidly share information through their Facebook pages, and routinely use Gmail and Google Talk to communicate with each other and friends around the world.

None of this will be news to Google, which over the past few years has quietly sent its staff to Burma to understand the changing media landscape and the impact of Internet penetration in the country.

No doubt the company has been impressed by the social media smarts of Burma’s netizens, even as it acknowledges that the country still has a long way to go before it can even begin to catch up with its more technologically advanced neighbors.

Google is not the only IT giant to take note of Burma’s potential as a vast untapped market and talent pool. Earlier this month, California-based networking giant Cisco announced that it would open two academies in the country, in partnership with USAID.

With the government planning to award new telecoms licenses in the near future, Burma’s IT sector is set to take off fast. But before Google or any other company gets too excited about the possibilities for growth in one of the world’s final frontier markets, they should understand that, recent reforms notwithstanding, Burma is still very much in the grip of a government mindset that regards real freedom of information with deep mistrust.

It was not so long ago that Burma’s ruler pulled the plug on the Internet entirely, in the aftermath of their brutal suppression of monk-led protests in 2007. At the time, “citizen journalists” posted photos, videos and detailed accounts of the bloody crackdown on the Internet, sparking worldwide outrage.

Since then, things have changed somewhat. After the current quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein came to power two years ago, exiled websites like The Irrawaddy stopped getting blocked by the authorities inside Burma. Pre-censorship of domestic media has also been eliminated, meaning that journals no longer need to be submitted to the government prior to going to print.

But this is not to say that the gates have been thrown wide open. Journals can still be suspended for publishing stories deemed to endanger the stability of the state, and exiles still face a running battle to keep their websites online, as they continue to come under attack from hackers, who or may not be state-sponsored.

At best, we can say that Burma is a few steps ahead of North Korea in terms of its willingness to create some space for its citizens on the Internet and in the press. However, we can’t even be sure if the modest progress made so far is irreversible.

There are many challenges still facing those who have long called for a greater openness in Burma. One is that some members of the former regime (including a few who occupy positions of influence in the current administration) have done their utmost to pollute cyberspace with hate speech, often directed at the democratic opposition, but also singling out ethnic and religious minorities.

Such abuse of free speech, especially in a country where such freedom is still severely restricted, could undermine demands for further openness. That, in fact, may be its intention. By stirring up sentiments against certain segments of society, malicious users of social media may be hoping to provide a pretext for more government controls.

Indeed, that appears to be what is happening right now. Last week, the Ministry of Information released a draft law that effectively rolls back the gains of the past two years. The new legislation, which was promptly submitted to Parliament, was drafted without input from the Interim Press Council (formed by the government last September, partly for the purpose of providing such input) or any other organization representing Burma’s journalists.

The new Printers and Publishing Enterprise Law, which is still awaiting parliamentary approval, is widely seen as an attempt to reinstate censorship under another guise, replacing the draconian 1962 Printers and Publications Act (which was abolished in January) in name, but not in spirit.

“At first we didn’t know who had drafted the bill, but then we discovered it was written by the Ministry of Information,” said Phay Myint, secretary of the Myanmar Journalists Association.

“The bill will be a serious blow to freedom of expression and freedom of the press. According to the draft, the official in charge of registration of publishers will control the whole process and have a lot of power. Everything we write and print will depend on his wishes,” he added.

According to the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, the draft law proposes to penalize illegal or unlicensed publishing with a fine of three million kyat (around US $3,500) or six months in prison. More ominously, it states that licenses can be withdrawn for publishing articles that deal with a host of “sensitive” subjects, including those deemed to incite religious or racial hatred, violence or “immoral” behavior. Criticism of the Constitution and existing laws is also off-limits.

Information Minister Aung Kyi, an ex-general who was once considered a “moderate,” has defended the draft press law, saying that it aims to prevent “poisonous” writing and protect religious sensitivities. Clearly, however, the real sacred cow here is the 2008 Constitution, drafted by the former junta leaders to protect their own interests and foisted on Burma by a rigged referendum.

This move comes at a time when many exiled media—for decades the only Burmese media able to openly express criticism of the government—have returned to establish offices inside the country. If the new law goes into effect, these voices will be in danger of being neutralized, along with the rest of Burma’s media, which has only recently begun to come back to life after half a century of repression.

The battle for media freedom is far from over, however. The country’s journalists will fight back, because even at the worst of times, Burma has never been a land of passive manikins.

According to Google spokesman Taj Meadows, Schmidt plans to speak at a public event with local startups, entrepreneurs and students when he visits Burma. But if he really wants to understand where the country is heading, he would do well to listen to its journalists, who would surely have a great deal to say about the country’s current direction.