Internet shutdowns: Can we find solutions?

Internet shutdowns have caused collateral damage, leading to infringement of human rights, while also affecting economies, and society. While the governments control such restrictions, is there a way to prevent them and find solutions?

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By Bojana Kovač

Internet shutdowns present intentional disruptions of the internet or of electronic communications, which can occur nationwide or in specific locations. They can be partial or in the form of total internet blackouts, blocking people from using the internet in its entirety. According to a research conducted by Shurfshark, 4.24 billion individuals have been affected, globally, in the first half of 2023, where 82 internet restrictions affected 29 countries.

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It has been estimated that Iran imposed the largest number of internet restrictions, while India proved to be a world leader in internet shutdowns in 2022. While the EU member states have not experienced total or partial blackouts, the statement made on France Info a few months ago by the EU’s Internal Market Commissioner, Thierry Breton, during the riots in France, raised a few eyebrows. Breton suggested that online platforms could be suspended for failing to promptly remove illegal content, especially in case of riots and violent protests.

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Author: Pietro Naj-Oleari 

This announcement led to more than 60 civil rights NGO’s seeking clarification, because they were concerned that the Digital Services Act (DSA) might be misused as a means of censorship. Brenton then clarified, in his comments, that the temporary suspension should be the last resort in case platforms fail to remove illegal content. These extreme circumstances include systemic failures in addressing infringements related to calls for violence or manslaughter. Significantly, Breton underscored that the courts will make the final decision on such actions, ensuring a fair and impartial review process.

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On a global scale,  Shurfshark found that since 2015, there have been:

  • 107 disruptions in Africa,
  • 585 disruptions in Asia,
  • 15 disruptions in Europe,
  • 9 disruptions in North America, and 
  • 42 disruptions in South America.

Shutdowns being used as a tool for repressing fundamental human rights

Most countries, if not all, justify shutdowns as a means of maintaining national security or for the prevention of false information, among others. However, the internet shutdowns have, in some cases, become a tool for digital authoritarianism with derogatory effects on human rights, including the right to free speech, access to information, freedom of assembly, and development.

The UN  Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, stated that the internet shutdowns violate international human rights law and cannot be justified. On a regional level, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled in the Cengiz and Others v. Türkiye case that ‘the Internet plays an important role in enhancing the public’s access to news and facilitating the dissemination of information in general.’ The case concerned the decision of a Turkish court to block access to Google Sites of an internet site owner who faced criminal proceedings for insulting the memory of Atatürk. While this was not a total blackout case, the ECtHR ruled that even a limited effect on internet restriction constitutes a violation of the freedom of expression.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) also condemned the imposing of internet shutdowns in its 2016 report, and urged African states to ensure effective protection of internet rights.

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The case of Gabon

The most recent case of an internet blackout was the one in Gabon, which occurred on 26 August 2023, the day the presidential and legislative elections took place. Minister Rodrigue Mboumba Bissawou, announced the internet blackout and a nightly 7:00 pm – 6:00 am curfew from Sunday on state television.

Bissawou claimed that the blackout is aimed at preventing the spread of false information and countering the spread of violence. On 30 August 2023, following the military coup, the independent and non-partisan internet monitor Netblocks reported the gradual restoration of internet connectivity. It should be noted that this is not the first time the country has faced an internet blackout, in view of the same thing occurring in 2019 during the attempted coup. 

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Internet shutdowns: Can we find solutions?

Responsibility of the ISPs and telecoms 

Taking into account the regional and international instruments, fundamental human rights are being infringed. Considering such restrictions as imposed by governmental authorities, the UN Human Rights Council, in its 2022 annual report, called on private companies, including Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telecoms, to explore all lawful measures to challenge the implementation of internet shutdowns. Namely, it called on them to ‘carry out adequate human rights due diligence to identify, prevent, mitigate, and assess the risks of ordered Internet shutdowns when they enter and leave markets.’

In 2022, the Human Rights & Human Rights Resource Center urged telecommunications companies to take action to ensure human rights protection due to the growing uncertainty of internet access worldwide. The report also highlighted the companies’ responsibilities under  the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to adopt human rights policies to 

  • uphold the rights of users or customers, 
  • enhance transparency on requests by governments for internet shutdowns,
  • negotiate human rights-compliant licensing agreements, 
  • adopt effective and efficient remedial processes.

The problem, however, lies in the fact that most of the telecoms are state-owned and controlled by current governments. Even in cases of foreign ISPs or telecoms, there is a high chance that they would sell their services to the governments because they would have to comply with national laws, which would violate human rights laws under the jurisdiction in which the companies are based. An example of this would be Telenor, a company which operated its services in Myanmar while the country adopted the draft cybersecurity bill, allowing the military junta to order internet shutdowns. Despite the Norwegian telecom company’s opposition to Myanmar’s draft cybersecurity bill for failing to ensure effective human rights protection, Telenor complied with the military’s requests and sold its operations in Myanmar. This raised many concerns among civil society, as Telenor was accused of not being transparent when selling its services. Digital civil rights organisation Access Now criticised Telenor’s lack of transparency, accusing it of making it even more difficult to develop mitigation strategies to avoid serious human rights abuses. 

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Is there a way out?

Internet shutdowns have intensified over the years, and urgent actions are necessary to prevent further human rights violations. It is evident that the governments are unable or unwilling to take any action, while the private actors have not yet been established at the level of being able to guarantee internet access during disruption. Therefore, until the governments take a more robust action to ensure internet access and end human rights violations, users should be educated on how to prepare themselves, expecting a shutdown. Access Now recommends downloading several Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) in advance if there is a risk of an internet shutdown, while governments often resort to blocking access to VPN providers. At the same time, the privacy policy of each VPN shall be checked beforehand, as not all VPNs guarantee effective privacy protection.