Laos Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong has signed a new decree imposing stricter Internet control in the country. Signed last September 16, 2014, the new regulation promotes responsible and “constructive” use of the Internet among Lao netizens.
A few months ago, Lao officials announced that they were studying the experience of other Southeast Asian nations as a guide in drafting an Internet law which they plan to implement this year. They chose the restrictive cyber laws of Myanmar and Vietnam as models in formulating the framework of Laos’ Internet law. Laos officials also reportedly looked at the approach used by China in regulating the Web.
As expected, the result is a law that claims to support the growth of the Internet but actually contains numerous contradictory provisions that undermine free speech and other citizen rights.
Provisions that recognize the privacy rights of Internet users, the protection of intellectual property, and prohibitions on pornography may be less controversial for Laotians. But the law also prohibits sharing photos that “contradict Lao traditions and culture.” The question is this, who will decide whether an obscene image insults Laotian heritage?
The same decree also identified several so-called “cybercrimes” whose definitions are unclear and very broad. They include:
- Disseminating false information against the Lao People's Revolutionary Party;
– Circulating information that encourages citizens to be involved in terrorism, murder, and social disorder;
– Supporting online campaigns that seek to divide solidarity among ethnic groups and between countries;
– Spreading information that distorts truth or tarnishes the dignity and rights of individuals, sectors, institutions and organizations;
– Sharing of comments whose contents are in line with the abovementioned prohibitions.
Internet service providers are ordered not to provide service to individuals, legal entities or organizations whose movement seeks to undermine the Party and government policies.
— LaosInvestmentReview (@laosinvest) September 23, 2014
Based on these guidelines, it seems that legitimate criticism of government programs and policies can be interpreted as a criminal act if it creates division, confusion, or “disorder” among the public. It is easy to see how authorities could use the law to prosecute journalists, activists, and other critics of the government.
The law also prohibits the creation of anonymous or pseudonymous accounts online, purportedly in an effort “to ease the efforts of authorities in regulating the Internet.” This is a big blow to citizens who seek to expose wrongdoings in the government through the Internet.
The government believes that this kind of Internet regulation is necessary to prevent abuse and misuse of the Internet as a space for communication and connection. While acknowledging the positive contributions of the Internet to the local economy, Lao officials also warned that it can be used to cause panic in society. They cited the spread of inaccurate information about the Lao Airlines crash and a recently online rumor of human organ trafficking in Attapeu province. In both cases, the Laos government was forced to make official statements to clarify the wrong information.
Despite these excesses, however, the Laos government previously vowed not to block the Internet, believing that it is essential to the “modernization and industrialization” of the country. But the new Internet law will undermine the commitment of Laos officials to keep the Internet open and free. It will discourage netizens from maximizing online spaces to engage public officials and challenge public policies.
The law could also impede the growth of the IT sector. In 2011 there were only 60,000 Facebook users in Laos. Today, more than half a million Lao citizens use the popular social networking site. According to news reports, there are now five telecommunications companies, seven Internet service providers and about 900 computer shops in the country. At this time, what Laos needs is a law that will boost this industry and not something that will unfairly penalize critics, activists, and even ordinary Internet users.
It is unfortunate that Laos has aligned itself with its neighbors in the region that are implementing repressive Internet laws to stifle dissent, intimidate the opposition, and even punish critical citizens. Laos should strive to distinguish itself in the region by adopting a human rights-based framework in regulating the Internet.