Internet Shutdowns and Human Rights: My Summit for Democracy Lightning Talk
I spent the past year-and-half as a member of the Tech & Democracy cohort Summit for Democracy and was asked to deliver a lighting talk on internet shutdowns and human rights. Here is the text of that talk and here’s a link to the video of the Championing Digital Democracy for All session.
Internet shutdowns violate a range of fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression and association, and are inherently disproportionate and unnecessary, and thus never justified under human rights law. Yet governments continue to shut down entire networks, especially during times of conflict, political unrest, and election periods. And network shutdowns have become part of the arsenal of modern warfare.
The Myanmar military, for example, has systematically imposed internet shutdowns to facilitate an aggressive scorched-earth campaign across the nation. Internet, mobile, and landline connections are cut in an impending sign of a military attack — and as shutdowns reign for days on end, entire villages, schools, places of worship, and personal property are torched, villagers killed, and food and other necessary supplies destroyed
Restricting access is seen as a way to hide evidence of human rights abuses, when information about the violence is crucial for documenting and investigating crimes and exposing perpetrators. Network shutdowns have the ultimate aim of stifling dissent, stopping the free flow of information, restricting reporting on matters of public interest, and concealing grave human rights violations. And they prevent people from accessing critical information, from healthcare to education, and job opportunities, that affect their everyday lives.
During the recent wave of demonstrations in Iran, security forces killed hundreds of protesters and bystanders in a deadly crackdown that was accompanied by an extensive shut down of the internet. As a result, an unknown amount of evidence of crimes and serious human rights violations was lost.
And shutdowns are being wielded as a weapon of war in geopolitical conflicts, as during the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Periodic, localized shutdowns have plagued Ukraine since Russian tanks rolled in early last year, sending key regions targeted in the invasion into darkness. Russia has turned internet disruptions into a weapon of war, deliberately targeting communications infrastructure like cell towers and TV towers, not only cutting Ukrainian off from the world but also from each other and the ability to get emergency assistance.
Saudi and Emirati-led airstrikes have similarly targeted telecommunications infrastructure in Yemen, compounding the devastating humanitarian crisis there.
Shutdowns disproportionately impact journalists and activists who depend on access to the internet and social media platforms for their work, which is perhaps never more essential than during violent conflict. Wthout access to internet or mobile networks, journalists are unable to contact sources, fact check, or file stories until after an event has happened. Which as we all know is too late.
While government-ordered countrywide internet shut-downs attract the most attention, smaller-scale disruptions that cut off individual services can also be just as damaging. This includes throttling or limiting the speed of internet service, or blocking specific websites, platforms, or social media channels.
For example, authorities in Iraq blocked access to popular social media and messaging apps for several days during the school exam period in a misguided attempt to curb cheating.
And major social media platforms have cut off or suspended their services in retaliation for legislation they oppose. Facebook shut down its news service in Australia, causing repercussions through the region including in small island nations and indigenous communities, right when the COVID 19 vaccine was being rolled out.
The UN Human Rights Council has condemned the disruption of online access and information, and UN special rapporteurs have declared that shutting down entire parts of communications systems can never be justified under human rights law.
It is imperative that both the public and private sector cease the use of shutdowns to manipulate the public sphere, refrain from weaponizing network shutdowns in international conflicts, and allow the free flow of information as required by their obligations under international human rights law.