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As Technologies Transform Myanmar, Online and Offline Human Rights Need Protection

The ICT SWIA, developed by MCRB and IHRB, is intended to support responsible business practices in this growing sector of Myanmar’s economy.
The ICT SWIA, developed by MCRB and IHRB, is intended to support responsible business practices in this growing sector of Myanmar’s economy.

The Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB), Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) today publish a sector-wide impact assessment (SWIA) on the information and communications technology (ICT) sector in Myanmar.

The assessment highlights many of the actual and potential human rights impacts that the rapid growth of mobile telecoms, internet and other ICTs can have on Myanmar, and the gaps in policy, law and practice that need to be filled, with recommendations on how to address these.

Five main themes emerge from the ICT SWIA:

  • Gaps in the policy, legal and regulatory framework:  Modern laws do not exist for most human rights risks posed by the ICT sector in Myanmar, in particular with respect to lawful interception, data privacy, access to information, certification bodies, cybersecurity, data protection and cybercrime.

  • Access: The Ministry of Communication and Information Technology’s transparent and technocratic approach to ICT liberalisation since 2013 is already supporting a rapid expansion of access and more effective competition to bring down prices. This is a good basis for further work to achieve universal accessibility of ICTs, including local language content and standardised Unicode fonts that allow for searching and thereby support the right to information.

  • Online “Digital Dangers”: These include risks of ICTs undermining data privacy, as well as enabling various forms of cybercrime, including child sexual abuse images, cyberbullying and stalking, and “hate speech”. Other digital dangers associated with the ICT sector include the wider consequences of Government-ordered mobile and Internet network shutdowns and the selective blocking of websites.

  • “Offline” human rights issues: As fibre and telecoms masts are rolled out rapidly across the country, there is inconsistent respect for labour rights and safety by multiple layers of subcontractors. This comes at a time when Myanmar labour law is rapidly changing and neither workers nor employers are well informed about basic labour rights protections. Other ‘offline’ challenges include inadequate stakeholder engagement and management of land leasing.

  • Uniting or dividing Myanmar society: Greater access to ICTs has the potential to impact positively or negatively on the rights of groups at risk. For example, ICTs can enable people with disabilities to obtain new services or seek income generation opportunities from which they were previously excluded. However, minorities can also suffer from ICT misuse. For example, the SWIA and other reports have identified disturbing patterns of anti-Muslim “hate speech” on social media.

Speaking at the launch of the ICT SWIA in Yangon, Vicky Bowman, Director of MCRB said:

"The ICT sector is connecting and transforming Myanmar. It brings with it many opportunities for the enjoyment of human rights, such as the right to education, health and information, and the right to participate in cultural life and government. But the headlong rush to roll out a modern network countrywide brings challenges, particularly in the absence of effective enforcement of labour and safety laws, or adequate policy and legal frameworks."
“These gaps are compounded by most users’ lack of ICT experience – their ‘digital literacy’ – which can put them and others at risk."

Margaret Wachenfeld, Director of Research and Legal Affairs at the Institute for Human Rights and Business added:

"The challenges facing the ICT Sector in Myanmar include a legal framework that is not designed for the modern technological age, nor aligned with international standards. A legacy of military era laws intended to restrict communication sits uneasily with a burgeoning sector that exists, in many ways, to do the opposite. Myanmar needs to fill the regulatory gaps through a rights-based approach which learns from good (and bad) practice elsewhere."
“The ICT SWIA draws on other work which IHRB has done to identify and analyse threats to human rights, in particular freedom of expression and privacy, arising from the use of ICTs. It recommends actions companies, civil society and governments can take to protect human rights in the digital realm, which in turn affect human rights in the real world.”

Background


About the ICT Sector-Wide Impact Assessment (SWIA):
  1. This is the third SWIA by MCRB, IHRB and DIHR, following previous assessments on oil and gas and tourism. A bilingual English/Myanmar Executive Summary and Recommendations, and the full report (currently English language only) are available here: https://www.myanmar-responsiblebusiness.org/swia/ict.html
  2. A summary of the recommendations to each of the main actors in Myanmar’s ICT sector is included in the Annex below. The full set of these recommendations and suggestions for how they can be implemented are included in the Executive Summary and Recommendations (available in English and Burmese). This includes an Annex to the Recommendations focused on ‘Lawful Interception and Government Access to User Data – The Characteristics of Rights-Respecting Models.
  3. The SWIA is based on both desk-based and field research in Mandalay, Sagaing and Yangon Regions, and Shan, Mon and Kayin States. It includes in-depth analysis of existing Myanmar policy and legal frameworks relevant to the sector, as well as summaries of the historical, political and economic context. It also includes research on the policies and practices of a wide range of companies in the ICT sector in Myanmar in order to further understanding and provide analysis of the sector and its actual and potential impacts on Myanmar society.     
  4. The intention of a SWIA is to present key human rights risks and opportunities to improve the regulation and operations of the sector in a manner that provides benefit to Myanmar, its people, and businesses.  It is a forward-looking assessment that aims to contribute to preventing and minimising the sector’s negative impacts, particularly its human rights impacts, as well as strengthening and improving the sector’s positive impacts.  The SWIA draws on established environmental and social impact assessment methodologies, but applies a human rights lens.  The SWIA highlights relevant international standards of responsible business conduct, particularly from the United Nations (UN), the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as well as ICT-sector specific standards. The report makes recommendations on how these standards can be incorporated into policy-making and practice.
  5. The SWIA considers actual and potential impacts on three levels:
  • Sector level impacts that cover the aggregate impacts of the sector and paint the “bigger picture” of the interaction between the ICT sector and Myanmar society (Chapter 3);
  • Operational level impacts affecting users online (Freedom of Expression, Hate Speech, Privacy, Surveillance and Lawful Interception, and Cyber-Security) and ‘offline’ impacts caused by the ICT value chain and in particular the rollout of the network nationwide (Labour, Land, Groups at Risk, Stakeholder Engagement and Grievance Mechanisms, Security and Conflict)  (Chapter 4).
  • Cumulative level impacts arising from the combined impacts of ICT and potentially other economic activities in the same area or timeframe while recognising that the majority of the ICT value chain is service-based. Its cumulative impacts are mostly social and occur at the sectoral and societal level (Chapter 5).       
     

About the authors

Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB) is a Yangon-based initiative funded by the UK, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands and Ireland governments, based on a collaboration between the Danish Institute for Human Rights and the Institute for Human Rights and Business. The Centre was established in 2013 to provide an effective and legitimate platform for the creation of knowledge, capacity and dialogue concerning responsible business in Myanmar, based on local needs and international standards, which results in more responsible business practices. It is a neutral platform working with businesses, civil society and government.

The Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) is a global think tank on the relationship between business and internationally proclaimed human rights standards. IHRB works to shape policy, advance practice and strengthen accountability to ensure the activities of companies do not contribute to human rights abuses, and in fact lead to positive outcomes. IHRB prioritises its work through time-bound programmes that can have the greatest impact, leverage and catalytic effect focusing on countries in economic and political transition and business sectors that underpin others in relation to the flows of information, finance, workers and commodities. 

The Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) is Denmark’s independent National Human Rights Institution established in accordance with the UN Paris Principles, with a mandate to promote and protect human rights and equal treatment in Denmark and abroad. DIHR’s Human Rights and Business Department focuses on the role of the private sector in respecting human rights. By means of research, tools and partnerships in particular with corporate stakeholders, DIHR seeks to maximise the positive impact and minimise the negative impact of business on society at large. DIHR also supports NHRIs and other State actors to play their essential role in ensuring the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.


Summary of ICT Sector Wide Impact Assessment (SWIA) Recommendations

The main recommendations from the ICT SWIA to key actors involved in Myanmar’s ICT sector are summarized below. A full set of detailed recommendations is included in the Executive Summary and Recommendations.

Additional recommendations for companies are included in Chapter 4, covering: Freedom of Expression, Hate Speech, Privacy, Surveillance and Lawful Interception, Cyber-Security, Labour, Land, Groups at Risk, Stakeholder Engagement and Grievance Mechanisms, and Security and Conflict.

TO THE GOVERNMENT OF MYANMAR

  1. Establish a coherent policy framework for the ICT sector with adequate safeguards.
  2. Improve ICT-specific legal and regulatory reforms to ensure appropriate safeguards around Government activities and a coherent framework for responsible business conduct in the ICT sector.
  3. Improve wider legislative and regulatory reforms on freedom of expression and association, land use and management and labour issues to ensure appropriate safeguards around Government activities and a coherent framework for responsible business conduct in the ICT sector.
  4. Adopt a rights-respecting lawful interception model and maintain open access to the Internet to ensure Myanmar does not become a modern “surveillance state” (See Annex to the Recommendations for more detail).
  5. Improve data protection standards and cybersecurity.
  6. Demonstrate a commitment to free and open communication through a modern Freedom of Information law and build meaningful transparency systems across Government.
  7. Accelerate the implementation of Myanmar’s universal service commitments.
  8. Improve digital literacy of users and send clear signals about respectful use of ICTs.
  9. Strengthen requirements for responsible business conduct in the ICT sector, including by requiring companies to provide operational grievance mechanisms for anyone impacted by their activities, and to report on their implementation.

TO COMPANIES IN THE ICT SECTOR

  1. Apply international standards of responsible business conduct in the absence of developed national legal frameworks, in particular the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. 
  2. Incorporate the thematic risks and recommendations presented throughout this SWIA into company operations and interactions.
  3. Engage with potentially affected stakeholders, particularly workers, communities, customers and users, to build trust and demonstrate transparency and accountability.
  4. Put in place mechanisms that can address concerns and grievances quickly and effectively.
  5. Take collective action where appropriate to address human rights, social and environmental issues.
  6. Develop strategies for creating positive impacts at the local, regional and national level.

TO CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANISATIONS, HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS AND THE MEDIA

  1. Actively advocate for and comment on changes to ICT policy, laws and regulations, particularly with regard to human rights impacts.
  2. Hold companies to account on responsible business conduct, including around human rights.
  3. Encourage companies and government to engage in multi-stakeholder discussion on human rights, social and environmental issues within the ICT sector.
  4. Initiate and support efforts to educate the Myanmar public about safe and peaceful behaviour online, including counter-speech.
  5. Increase media reporting on ICT sector.

TO DEVELOPMENT PARTNERS/HOME GOVERNMENTS

  1. Support the strengthening of human rights, social and environmental considerations within ICT policy, legal and regulatory improvements, especially those highlighted in Recommendations 2 and 3 to the Myanmar Government. 
  2. Support implementation of the corporate responsibility to respect human rights by Myanmar and international companies.
  3. Ensure investment and free trade agreements negotiated with the Government of Myanmar reinforce responsible business practices.

 

TO INVESTORS

  1. Conduct due diligence on companies in portfolios that are involved in the ICT sector in Myanmar.
  2. Engage with investee companies involved in the ICT sector in Myanmar to ensure that these companies meet international standards on responsible business conduct relevant to their business in Myanmar.
  3. Urge companies doing business in the ICT sector in Myanmar to report robustly on how they manage risks and impacts associated with investments and operations in the country.

 

TO USERS

  1. Undertake basic steps to protect your privacy and security while using ICTs.

 






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