laos_buddhist_monks_computers (Reuters)

Digital Freedom in Laos

Internet access is far lower than any of Laos’ neighbours with only 9 percent using it in 2011. More recent data suggests an expansion: In 2012 there were 400,000 Facebook users in Laos; up from 60,000 in 2011 in a population of over 6.5 million.

Internet use is growing in Laos but still remains confined to larger cities and towns. A report from academic Warren Mayes guesstimated there were some 50-60 internet cafes in Vientiane in 2006. He noted then online life was growing fast for young people and their interactions with the wider Lao diaspora.

Laos may yet crackdown on Facebook. Last year the communications ministry was to introduce internet regulations to allow official monitoring of the internet – though sources suggest it is already very much unofficially monitored. The director general mentioned to the Vientiane Times information on Facebook circulating regarding a crashed Lao Airlines plane was not “helpful”.

The state controls all internet service providers, and there are some reports that the government sporadically blocks web activity. “The government’s technical ability to monitor the internet is limited, though concerns remain that Laos is looking to adopt the censorship policies and technologies of its neighbors, Vietnam and China,” says Freedom House.

Much of Vietnam’s surveillance ability is already sourced from western companies such as Finn Fisher, Verint and Silver Bullet, rather than homegrown. Sources have previously told Index that Chinese private companies are more likely to assist in surveillance than the government proper; however many including the CPJ strongly suspect Chinese government involvement.

One problem for Laos is that Lao language and alphabet programs have been slow to catch up, though young people do use a phonetic, romanised script known as pasa karaoke.

Deputy Minister of Post and Telecommunications, Thansamay Kommasith, told the Vientiane Times that an “official” Lao script program was being developed, saying: “This is for unity and prosperity, using the official Lao language in those technologies for the future development of IT in Laos as well as to develop the country through them.” There are already unofficial ones being used. Vietnamese military-owned telco Viettel is to assist in the development, according to local news stories. The telco was previously linked to malware attacks within Vietnam.

Laos has plans to launch its own communications satellite. Minister of Post and Telecommunication, Hiem Phommachanh, said at a “groundbreaking ceremony” the satellite would contribute to the nation’s socio-economic development. The $250 million (£147 million) satellite will be funded by China, though Laos will hold a 30 per cent share.

Formerly message boards like Laoupdate and Laosmiles have been popular with both the younger diaspora and native Lao. The former site shut down, some suggest thanks to government pressure. The latter censored posts, explaining earnestly to the outraged users that it was to avoid trouble.

The Electronic Freedom Frontier has reported that Laos is on the Global Online Freedom Act’s blacklist, which was passed by a US House sub-committee, meaning US companies are prohibited from selling surveillance gear to repressive regimes. The EFF called it “an important step toward protecting human rights and free expression online”. US companies have sold such technology in the past to Vietnam.

Just as Laos has laws which can govern the press or activists, it has also specified similar acts in its internet laws. Article 15 (points 6 and 7) states people must “Not to use communication to defeat national stability, peace, socio-economic or cultural development of the country”; “7. Not to use the telecommunication system to defame persons or organisations.”

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