Google, Viber to investigate military-backed telco ads in Myanmar

Google, Viber to investigate military-backed telco ads in Myanmar

Search engine giant Google and Rakuten-owned messaging app Viber announced on Wednesday that they are investigating ads published and ran by Myanmar military-backed telecoms operator Mytel following the February 1 junta coup, according to Reuters.

The two tech companies acted following calls from activists to restrict access to the telco’s services following dozens of demonstrator deaths after weeks of nationwide protests against the forceful seizure of power.

Justice for Myanmar (JFM), an advocacy group that investigates the army’s business interests, tweeted on Wednesday that it had found that Google and Viber were running new advertisements for Mytel following a countrywide ban on Facebook to limit information sharing between protestors.

On the early morning hours of February 1, the military overthrew the democratically elected government, arresting senior officials such as Aung San Suu Kyi after less than a decade of civilian rule.

In parallel, the military has forced numerous Internet outages across Myanmar since the coup, in an attempt prevent thousands of protesters in the streets from communicating and coordinating, as extra boots on the ground have been deployed to intensify the crackdown.

While Facebook is considered the most popular in Myanmar with 21 million active users, it had previously announced it would block the Myanmar army from access to its platforms as well as advertising by all army-linked military entities.

Earlier in 2020. Facebook removed more than a dozen user accounts and pages for “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” It said they were being used to covertly promote Mytel and disparage rivals.

Viber replied to JFM’s tweet saying that “we are looking into the current situation to ensure all ads comply with our guidelines. While we are conducting this analysis, we have decided to stop all advertising in Myanmar.”

It later added in a thread that “Viber continues to focus on the most important task – ensuring people in Myanmar continue to communicate freely and securely under the circumstances.”

Google, on the other hand, stated that it was reviewing the ads and had separately disabled some accounts connected to the military including those on Gmail, the publishing platform Blogger, and the Google Play store.

“We have taken action against accounts on our platforms… including disabling accounts on Google services and taking down a number of YouTube channels and videos related to the Myanmar military,” a Google spokeswoman told Reuters.

“Our priority is to help people in Myanmar access information and communicate safely,” the Google spokeswoman added.