YANGON, Myanmar — Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt on Friday urged Myanmar’s government to allow private businesses to develop the country’s woeful telecommunications infrastructure, emphasizing the importance of competition and free speech.
“Try to keep the government out of regulating the internet,” he said to a round of applause from a group of students at a technical university in Yangon. “The answer to bad speech is more speech. More communication. More voices,” he said. “If you are a political leader you get a much better idea of what your citizens are thinking about.”
Schmidt said the Internet can help cement political and economic opening in Myanmar, which has undergone rapid changes since reformist president Thein Sein took office in 2010 after decades of direct military rule.
“The Internet will make it impossible to go back,” he said. “The Internet once in place guarantees communication and empowerment becomes the law and practice of your country.”
He said Google’s first priority in Myanmar will be to improve access to information with its search engine and applications such as translation and maps.
“Right now the thing Google can do most is get information into the country,” he said.
Google on Thursday launched a local homepage, www.google.com.mm, which will allow the tailoring ofMyanmar content. On Wednesday it unblocked the Google Apps store to allow access from within Myanmar. The U.S. lifted most sanctions on doing business in Myanmar last year. The company says it’s also working to develop local language content.
Today, inadequate infrastructure and high prices mean only about 1 percent of people in Myanmar have access to the internet, according to World Bank data, and less than ten percent have mobile phones, Schmidt said.
Data capable smartphones remain prohibitively expensive, averaging $563 in a nation where the average income is $60-70 per month, according to a February 2013 study by Radio Free Asia’s Open Technology Fund.
Myanmar has just three internet service providers, two of which are wholly or partially owned by the government. All connections, landline and wireless, run through a single fiber optic cable, connections to which haven’t been updated since 2008, according to the Open Technology Fund report. Speeds are so slow that sometimes it is impossible to use Gmail.