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Laos Requires SIM Card Registration by Mid-December

Source: Radio Free Asia

Laos is requiring that all of the country’s 6.45 million cell phone users register their numbers by Dec. 16 or risk losing service, citing a crackdown on online scamming and content critical of the government.

Some people welcomed the move as a way to clamp down on criminals and illegal activities, but others saw it as a threat to privacy and yet another way to stifle dissent in the one-party country.

The most recent deadline was announced last week at the annual meeting of the Lao National Internet Committee by Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Vilay Lakhamfong, who is also the country’s minister of public security and the internet committee’s chairman. Previously, the deadline had been extended twice before. 

An official with the Lao Ministry of Technology and Communications, who like other sources in this report requested anonymity for safety reasons, confirmed the deadline to RFA Lao, noting that “everybody’s phone number must be registered” with the owner’s facial scan and residency information, among other personal details.

“Whoever doesn’t register his or her number will not be able to make calls [after the deadline], meaning the number will be completely cut off,” the official said. “All individuals and businesses must register their numbers by the deadline, Dec. 16, 2023.”

The government first announced its cell phone registration program in June 2020 with a deadline by the end of the year as part of the country’s efforts to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the deadline was extended to January 2022 after a resurgence of the virus complicated the registration process.

An official with the technology and communications ministry of a province in northern Laos told RFA that failure to register one’s cell phone number by the latest deadline would result in “your number being disabled immediately.”

“[Authorities] are strictly enforcing this measure at the end of this year,” he said. “Right now, we are pushing telecom providers like Lao Telecom, ETL and Unitel to launch campaigns urging people to register their numbers as soon as possible.”

The ministry official said that the policy is, in part, aimed at “turning Laos digital,” but also to “help improve the safety and security of the country and people” by eliminating criticism of the government.

“Many people use telephones to create trouble in our community … by posting critical photos and content on social media,” he said. “The government wants to stop all of these illegal online activities, especially online scamming.”

But the official acknowledged that implementation of the policy had run into trouble because more than half of the 7.58 million people who call Laos home live in rural areas and lack national IDs or proof of residency, which are the main documents required for registering their phones.

Additionally, he said, documents such as ID cards, proof of residency, passports, driver’s licenses, and government or student IDs are required for new cellphone users to purchase a SIM card.

“Right now, at least 60% of Laotians don’t have these documents,” the official said. “This is making it a real challenge for the authorities to register all the phone numbers by the deadline.”

Tracking down the ‘bad guys’

A member of the public with knowledge of the telecom industry, who declined to be named, told RFA that the government “wants all the information” on cell phone users to weed out “the bad guys.”

“Of course, the authorities are going to use this information to crack down on online scamming activities – that is one of the reasons – but the main reason is that the government wants to be more restrictive because many bad elements use cell phones to commit crimes,” he said. “If every number is registered, it’ll be easier for the authorities to track down the bad guys.”

An IT expert in Laos welcomed the registration policy, saying that authorities can use the information to “easily identify the bad individuals who misuse cell phones,” as well as limit the number of SIM cards a person can own.

“However, nobody knows where the government is going to keep our personal information or how it is going to use it,” he said.

He noted that in early September, authorities in northern Luang Namtha province arrested a 16-year-old student in Sing district who posted a video clip of himself throwing Lao kip banknotes on the ground and stepping on them in apparent frustration at the country’s runaway inflation rate. The student was later subjected to political “re-education” before being released.

The ambitious plan to register all cell phone numbers by mid-December has not only been hampered by the public’s lack of identifying documents.

An IT worker with a telecom operator in Laos questioned whether the registration process could be completed without the proper resources.

“We have had to postpone the deadline several times because we can’t force people to register their numbers – we can’t travel to every corner of the country,” he said. “Furthermore, our employees don’t have enough funding to carry out the task. That’s why more than 60% of cellphone users had not been registered by the end of 2022.”

Internet Freedom in Laos

The one-party communist government of Laos brooks no dissent, and internet access in the impoverished country is strictly monitored.

In its 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the U.S. State Department noted that the Lao government routes the country’s internet traffic through a single gateway, enabling it to monitor and restrict content.

Under the law, it is illegal to post content or comments critical of the government in Laos. Those that do – even by simply forwarding or commenting on another person’s posts – are subject to having their posts deleted, their telecom access terminated, and arrest.

A resident of the capital Vientiane told RFA he is under no illusion that the registration policy is aimed at promoting the technological development of Laos and ensuring the safety of its citizens.

“The main purpose of registering phone numbers is to crack down on those who use social media platforms such as Facebook and Youtube to criticize the party and government,” he said.