Laos, a Southeast Asian country, has seen progress in digital connectivity but also raises concerns over internet freedom and media suppression. While no hard evidence of comprehensive internet filtering exists, the government maintains control over domestic internet servers and sporadically monitors internet usage. Infrastructure exists to route all internet traffic through a single gateway, enabling content monitoring.
Internet Censorship and Freedom
As of the latest available data, there is no concrete evidence suggesting active internet filtering in Laos in areas such as politics, social issues, conflict/security, or tools. However, the government controls domestic internet servers and has developed infrastructure capable of monitoring and restricting content.
Press Freedom and Media Control
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), press freedom in Laos is heavily restricted. The government exerts almost total control over the media, and most media organizations are government-owned. The Freedom of the Press Index 2020 by Reporters Without Borders ranked Laos 172 out of 179 countries. Article 65 of the 2005 Penal Law states that circulating information detrimental to the state may result in up to five years’ imprisonment. Currently, three known journalists are imprisoned in Laos due to violations of media law.
Peer-to-Peer Services and Torrenting
Information regarding the government’s stance on Peer-to-Peer services and torrenting is limited. Users are advised to exercise caution.
Media Websites and Social Media Access
Social media platforms are accessible, but the Lao government has a task force to monitor social media, focusing on “fake news” and posts criticizing the government or the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). Social media penetration was at 49.1% as of January 2021.
Data on Laos’ stance on net neutrality is limited. The behavior of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in this regard remains unclear.
The National Internet Committee administers the internet system in Laos and requires ISPs to submit quarterly reports and link their gateways for monitoring. Privacy is generally protected by law, but exceptions arise, particularly for perceived security threats.
Surveillance and Privacy
The Laotian government has the legal authority to monitor individual movements and private communications, particularly in situations where there is a perceived security threat. This authority isn’t unique to Laos; many governments around the world reserve similar rights, often invoking national security as the basis for such surveillance activities.
Given the Laotian government’s control over domestic internet servers and the development of infrastructure to route all internet traffic through a single gateway, it is technically possible for a centralized entity to closely monitor, intercept, or alter communications. The absence of widespread internet filtering doesn’t necessarily mean an absence of surveillance; monitoring can occur without overt content restriction. In such environments, the government doesn’t have to inform you that you are being watched, which makes the surveillance typically silent and unseen.
Why Assume Everything is Monitored?
Considering the existing technical capabilities and legal framework, it may be prudent for users in Laos to operate under the assumption that their online activities could be monitored. Here are a few reasons why:
- Precautionary Principle: If you assume that all your activities are monitored, you are more likely to take precautionary measures that protect your privacy and data.
- Legal Safety: The 2005 Penal Law and other regulations make it clear that certain types of information sharing can be punishable by law. Being cautious can help avoid accidental infringements.
- Political Context: Given the restrictions on press freedom and the reported imprisonments for violations of media laws, erring on the side of caution could be important for those discussing sensitive topics.
- Government Task Forces: The establishment of task forces specifically aimed at monitoring social media for “fake news” and criticisms of the government suggests a willingness to enforce control on newer forms of media.
- Unclear Boundaries: The term “security threat” can be elastic and may include a wide range of activities. This ambiguity makes it difficult to clearly delineate what might trigger government scrutiny.
- General Trend: The trend in many governments globally, not just in Laos, is toward increased surveillance capabilities, often in the name of national security.
Given these factors, it seems prudent to exercise caution and utilize privacy tools such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and encrypted communications platforms. However, the legal status of such tools in Laos is unclear.
Laos presents a complex digital landscape. While there is no evidence of widespread internet filtering, the government has capabilities for monitoring and potential content restriction. Press freedom is heavily compromised, and social media is increasingly monitored for anti-government sentiment. Users in Laos should exercise caution online.