Assessing implications of internet shutdowns according to internet governance principles

19 Dec 2017 15:00h - 16:30h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the 12th Internet Governance Forum]

This session, proposed by the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee ( and Center for Technology and Society, Rio de Janeiro, discussed the impact of Internet shutdowns and blocks around the world. Mr Thiago Tavares, President of SaferNet Brazil, and Mr Paul Fehlinger, Deputy Director, Internet & Jurisdiction Policy Network, moderated the panel

Ms Monica Rosina, Public Policy Manager of Facebook Brazil, spoke first. One frequently mentioned point in several IGF panels on Internet interruption is that it isolates people and communities. Moreover, because the Internet is among the most powerful engines for economic growth, disruptions also affect the economy. For these reasons, Facebook in deeply concerned about the tendency to block specific websites’ services, since it jeopardises free and open Internet.

Ms Neide Oliveira, Federal Prosecutor, Brazil, stated that although the Brazilian Constitution grants its subjects with the rights to communication and freedom of expression, they can be modulated if courts find that they are hindering another fundamental rights, such the right to life. WhatsApp has greatly contributed to Brazilian economy and social life. Nonetheless, the company has been much less helpful when it comes to complying with court orders to share data on suspects of serious crimes. To Oliveira, the platform`s inability to comply with legal decisions puts the safety and rights of the country’s population at risk.

Mr Carlos Affonso, Professor of Private Law at Rio de Janeiro State University, Brazil, highlighted the importance of differentiating user misconduct on platforms and the legal personality of the companies who own them. Then, to illustrate the relative longevity of the blocking debate, he cited the following three documents.

Ms Susan Chalmers, Policy Specialist, Office of International Affairs, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, at US Department of Commerce, referred to previous IGF US sessions to conjecture that Internet fragmentation comprises three parts: technical, commercial, and governmental. High-level policy decisions, such as the restriction of dataflows, may make sense from a geopolitical outlook, but they can jeopardise the Internet’s ability to self-heal. Thus, there is a need for leaders who unite these three standpoints to emerge and bridge the divide between the political/judicial and technical levels.

According to Mr Kyung-Sin Park, Professor of Law, at Korea University, the case of WhatsApp in Brazil is also a privacy issue, as it raises questions about whether a court can punish someone served with a warrant for not sharing confidential data. This raises the question of whether a warrant is a permission for prosecutors to access information, or an affirmative order to force private parties to comply? Although the prevailing interpretation is the former, developments in Brazil seem to be based on the latter.

Ms Stefanie Felsberger, Senior Researcher at Access to Knowledge for Development, analysed two instances of Internet shutdowns in Egypt, in 2011 and 2017. The main difference between them is that in 2011, the country’s entire Internet was blocked. Now, the government is targeting specific websites, although in large numbers (465) and with many international media included. This may stem from the fact that, instead of only prosecuting individuals, Egypt now holds platforms accountable. In Felsberger’s view, one way to combat this trend would be to show the economic costs of these measures to governments, as they appear to have a greater weight than human rights-based requests.

Mr Peter Micek, General Council at AccessNow, revealed that his organisation’s shutdown tracker registered an increase (from 56% to 77%) in such measures from last year. Shutdowns are a form of discrimination, thus violate principles of neutrality, not to mention the infrastructural risk they pose. Furthermore, they can qualify as human rights issues, as there are two registered cases of miscarriages where expectant mothers could not contact medical workers in time. Under these circumstances, initiatives like #KeepItOn need all the support they can get.

The following Q&A covered questions on: the balance of security and justice with freedom, preemptive shutdowns and the risks they pose, how Facebook Brazil can defer legal issues to its headquarters, and how shutdowns affect people with no Internet access. 

By Guilherme Cooper Vicente