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Shutdown in Myanmar: A Fresh Story with Old Challenges

 Supporting 5 million users in Myanmar is no small feat


When the Internet goes dark, so does communication with the rest of the world. We know that many regimes use Internet censorship as a method to suppress public awareness,  civil protest, and mobilization, and a shutdown event is often a signal of bad things to come. This means more bad news is lurking around.  When the lights of the routers went off in Myanmar, the whole world changed for millions of Burmese...

“Shocked and sheer disbelief” was how a young Burmese described the situation after the coup in February. “I lost my sense of direction,” and also “my job”. He was not the only person who experienced this level of dislocation: close to 2 million Burmese flocked to the Psiphon network in the span of only a few days.  The number subsequently increased to 5 million in the next couple of months. 


The graph below shows the number of Psiphon users between late January 2021 and late July, 2021.  Note the dramatic jumps in user count on Feb 3rd (coinciding with the coup) and on May 2nd, coinciding with the restart of mobile services. 


Both Psiphon and Psiphon pro were the top downloaded apps in Myanmar on May 17th, totalling over 1.7 million downloads (SensorTower.com).


The Cost of Restoring access to the International Internet 


A network of servers that can absorb such a huge increase in usage needs to have a solid infrastructure and a lot of reserved capacity for when people need access to the international Internet. But, how do these things work when censors block the Internet? 


Imagine the Internet as roads, and people surfing on the Internet as driving on these lanes. Some roads are local to a city while others can connect you to other parts of the country. Censorship is similar to disallowing traffic on national or local highways. It can be done in various ways from enforcing slow speeds to removing road signs on how to leave the city. 


That is when anti-censorship tools like Psiphon come into play and unblock the roads. Psiphon uses different tactics to connect people to the international Internet.


The Psiphon Network operates nine distinct protocols that connect people and deliver the censored content. These protocols, when run in the Psiphon Network proper, help distribute network load and ease congestion when people access the International Internet, which means a faster connection and a more reliable experience.

The flexibility that these custom Internet Freedom protocols give services like Psiphon, makes answering people’s calls in Myanmar, Belarus or Azerbaijan possible when Internet access is limited, but it comes at a real cost; every byte that traverses the Psiphon Network is crossing a series of commercial networks, and each charge their own price for the servers and network infrastructure.


Balancing need and costs


Making sure the network is ready to support millions of users, whenever it’s needed, remains one of the biggest challenges for the Internet Freedom community in their fight against censorship all over the world.  


As would be the case for any other freely accessible service provider, Psiphon cannot sustain the types of population scale surges seen in Myanmar indefinitely, nor support a number of these surges occurring simultaneously. This is truly unfortunate, since it could mean the loss of many people’s last hopes to access the open Internet, just when they need it most.  


After all, while Internet freedom is a fundamental human right, it is definitely not free.


Get Involved


Internet freedom is a right for all, but only a few of us have the means to support people in regions practicing censorship to access the open internet. Be one of them.


What can you do? Raise awareness by talking about the internet situation in Myanmar, and invite others to talk about it on social media with your friends and people who care about freedom of information. You can also directly support tools like Psiphon that help people in need. Subscribe to Psiphon if you are not in Myanmar. Showing your support for everyone who has been denied their right to access information on the internet will mean a lot to them, and it means a lot to the people who do their best to bring light into the darkness of censorship.

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