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Internet and network channel shutdowns aim to disrupt the free access to information. They not only hamper human rights, such as freedom of expression, organisation, and mobilisation, but they can also have negative impacts on the economic and business ecosystems. This session contextualised Internet shutdowns and used case studies from Iran and the African continent to foster discussion about the efforts needed to tackle these state-sponsored, information disrupting activities.
Internet shutdowns, also referred to as ‘blackouts’ or ‘network disruptions’, are the intentional disruption of the Internet and electronic communications, meant to exert control over the flow of information online. Internet shutdowns occur through the blocking of social media platforms, and are often orchestrated by authoritarian governments facing challenges in the form of elections or public protests.
Internet shutdowns take different forms each meant to impact liberties such as the freedom of expression, organisation, and mobilisation. However, such disruptions can have negative impacts on other sectors such as educational and healthcare systems. Ms Melody Patry (Advocacy Director, Access Now) highlighted that disruptions can have negative impacts on the education, healthcare, and economic systems of countries. Mr Ross Creelman (Public Policy Officer, European Telecommunications Network Association (ETNO)) also stated that these shutdowns can negatively impact foreign investments for a country.
Iran represents a unique situation for Internet shutdowns. As explained by Mr Amir Rashidi (Internet Security and Legal Rights, Center for Human Rights in Iran), Iran has developed a comprehensive approach for controlling the digital infrastructure of the Internet, which includes legal components that allow for full state control and potential network disruptions. The country has made significant investments in the creation of local networks as well as developed national policies and regulations that give the government complete control over gateways for internet service providers (ISPs). As Rashidi further highlighted, the situation has been worsened by the US sanctions on Iran. These sanctions have helped the government encourage people to only use Iranian infrastructure. Indeed, many foreign businesses also banned Iranians from using their services. This meant that Iranians were forced to use Iranian infrastructures, which are vulnerable to government-sponsored shutdowns.
Other examples of state sponsored network disruptions took place in African states such as Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zimbabwe. Ms Koliwe Majama (Organizer, African School of Internet governance; Association for Progressive Communications (APC)) stated that despite the importance that needs to be given to network shutdowns, it is also necessary to look at how such actions are perceived by the public before and after the disruption. Majama went on to further state that the question that emerges from this shift in focus, is whether we need a reactive approach to disruptions or a proactive approach. Citing the case of Nigeria, the public created noise and raised awareness around the shutdown before it occurred, forcing national authorities to issue a statement saying that they would not shut down the Internet.
While some efforts have been advanced at the level of the African Union for approving an African declaration on Internet rights and freedoms, existing instruments are not legally binding and therefore require further development. Addressing the challenge posed by Internet shutdowns requires new legislative trust-centred frameworks based on the rule of law, e-law, and human rights law as highlighted by Creelman. Expanding on this, Rashidi called for more international pressure, such as new international communication bodies and accountability mechanisms, potentially in the context of the UN.
While legislative frameworks are urgently needed, another technology development-driven approach was proposed by Internet Finland. Internet Finland highlighted the rise of projects that are launching satellites into low orbit that can be reached directly by mobile phones. For this group, the potential of using satellite access to phones as a standard feature in every phone could be a possible solution to discouraging Internet shutdowns, given that their channels are not located within a single country’s sovereign boundaries.
By Stefania Grottola