Thursday, October 13, 2005

US firms help junta repress Burma

In an article in the Oct 12 NYT, Tom Zeller Jr. tells us that the junta in Yangon employs top-of-the-line tools to prevent the residents of Burma/Myanmar from viewing Internet content deemed "detrimental" to the government's policies.

This is not news. It's sad, but not at all surprising.

What is news is the involvement of US firms in supplying monitoring and filtering tools to the Burmese generals, along with other repressive governments in places like China and Iran. In the case of Myanmar, this is against the law and has been for years, most recently restated in the sanctions outlined in the 2003 Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act.

Zeller's emphasis is on a company called Fortinet, which makes a heavy-duty filtering product called Fortiguard. While the Yangon junta has recently upgraded it's filtering tool from open-source to Fortiguard, and has publicized this fact on its Web sites, Fortinet maintains that they do not do business with the Myanmar government, citing their two-tier distribution model.

This makes me want to vomit. What a bunch of crap. Allow me to explain:

Microsoft (which, by the way, has come under fire for helping the Chinese government filter and block "disruptive" Web content) has a "two-tier" distribution system, maybe the world's biggest. You buy your copy of Microsoft Office 2003 at Wal-Mart, or CompUSA, or from, or any number of other places. Obviously, Microsoft is not involved directly in your purchase transaction and, thus, the "two-tier" system.

However, when you install the software on your home PC, what's the first thing you have to do? Register the product with Microsoft, right? Now, you aren't FORCED to register, you can opt out. However, if you want to get patches and updates from Microsoft, well, the folks in Redmond want to know a bit more about you.

Furthermore, if you have technical problems with your copy of Word, who do you contact for help? Wal-Mart? Not likely. You go straight to Microsoft (at least, you do if you're the average home user).

Microsoft was not involved in your original purchase of the product, but, somewhere down the line, they are going to get to know you.

The same is true, except on a much smaller and more intimate scale with Fortinet. For them to say something like, "Our intent is to fully comply with the law, and Fortinet does not condone doing business with U.S.-embargoed or sanctioned countries," (this from Fortinet's spokesperson, Michelle Spolver) amounts to hiding behind the skirts of not-so-plausible deniability. What the heck does it even mean? "Our intent..."? "...does not condone..."? She's not saying that Fortinet is actually doing (or not doing) anything!

I can't help but get worked up when I read about Western, especially American, companies aiding the Yangon junta in their efforts to hang on to their illegal power and further ravage the people, land, and economy of Burma. There are very few examples in world history of evil military dictatorships that live up to the Hollywood standard, but the Yangon junta is one if them. These guys display a shocking number of damning qualities (destruction of the teak forests, forced labor of citizens on large civil engineering projects straight out of the bad old days in the Soviet Union, cooperation with opium and heroin producers in the Golden Triangle, preventing the popularly-elected government from assuming power for more than 15 years, etc) and zero redeeming ones. The Burmese population needs our help, their so-called government needs none.

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