The internet stitches itself into the daily lives of billions of people in numerous ways. It functions as a means of communication, a marketplace, entertainment and education, and has a growing capacity for both liberation and discrimination. The world wide web is used as an empowering tool for the marginalized and the oppressed across the world, and similarly, those in power are becoming more and more fond of using the kill switch. Internet shutdowns are intentional, specific measures taken to limit the flow of information to any one region or population, and are used for a variety of reasons, from rigging elections to censorship to hiding grievous human rights violations. Most simply put, these shutdowns are an attempt to deprive civilians of their rights to expression, association, and assembly in online spaces.
Although these practises are often carried out by authoritarian states, internet shutdowns are not confined to dictatorships. India, the world’s largest democracy, was reported by digital rights group Access Now to have carried out 109 shutdowns in the year 2020, the highest figure worldwide. What’s more, the problem is getting worse. Access Now announced a 15% global increase in 2021, with an economic toll of an estimated $5.5 billion. It’s an issue that the UN Human Rights Chief says has done “incalculable damage, both in material and human rights terms.”
Shutdowns can come in many different forms and measures of severity, with some affecting geostrategic areas to quell civilian unrest and others targeting specific mobile networks or applications. Another common tactic is the slow internet speeds, therefore limiting how fast information can travel. These shutdowns are often used during electoral periods, and between 2016 and 2021, shutdowns affected at least 52 different elections, with 19 of those happening in Africa in 2019 alone. This can also be seen in the highly suspect Russian Federation election in 2021, in which current warmonger Vladimir Putin won with no small help from major tech corporations. Apple and Google complied with the demands of Russian authorities and removed the Smart Voting app, designed by anti-corruption campaigner and opposition Alexey Navalny. Apple also disabled its Privacy Relay feature, which hides user data and browsing history, the night before the election.
Access Now reports that almost half of internet shutdowns in the past six years were instigated as a result of protests and heightened political tensions, such as the widespread shutdowns in Myanmar. Three days after a military coup took place, websites such as Wikipedia and apps such as Facebook and twitter were blocked. Mobile and landline connections remain blocked in some of the worst affected regions, with others having extremely slow 2G connections to work with. Human rights agencies have emphasized the challenges that these shutdowns create in terms of gathering evidence for human rights violations, a move labelled by the UN as a “digital dictatorship.”
Perhaps the most famous use of internet restrictions to curb freedom of expression is China’s “Great Firewall,” a highly sophisticated digital border that monitors civilian internet use and only permits information which the Chinese Communist Party deems suitable. The scale of this censorship is mind-boggling, with some 989 million people accessing highly censored information through a state-controlled “splinternet.” American-based social media networks and media outlets are banned, as well as human rights organizations such as the Amnesty International website. Instead, China offers its citizens alternative, government-monitored networks in which to live online lives. Some of these, such as Weibo, have gone on to gather more users than their western counterparts.
Integral to the issue of Internet shutdowns is the role played by multinational tech corporations that control internet access and comply with censorship laws in the interest of profit. “Apple Censorship” is an offshoot of GreatFire.org, an organization dedicated to monitoring and circumventing China’s strict censorship policies. In a report published in April of this year, they outline the scale of takedowns from the Apple App store. On average, Apple receive a take-down request from a government every 2.5 days and complies with these requests 73.8% of the time. When it comes to the governments of China and Russia, Apple complies with the vast majority of takedown requests – 98% and 95%, respectively. This contradicts Apple’s policy, which states that the company follows the “higher standard” in keeping with the UN guiding principles, whilst respecting “national law.”
There is some precedent to measures and attitudes we can take regarding internet shutdowns, such as the 2016 UN resolution on the “Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet” The resolution outlines the extension of human rights into virtual spaces online and calls for a human rights-based approach in how we provide and regulate the internet. It renews previous 2012 and 2014 resolutions that state human rights extend into online spaces. Additionally, the resolution points out the important role the internet can play in facilitating education that might bolster opportunities for women and girls, as well as the assistive and adaptive technology the internet offers people with disabilities. A similar sentiment was expressed in 2019, when a Human Rights Council Report of freedom of peaceful assembly and association in the digital age. The Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association stated that “network shutdowns are a clear violation of international law and cannot be justified in any circumstance.”
A 2022 report by the UN on the increased presence of internet shutdowns offers some steps that the international community as a whole can take. The report calls on member states to give clear reasoning behind any shutdowns. According to the UN, they must be grounded in legal basis, proportional to any legitimate threat, subject to prior authorization by a court and clearly communicated to both providers and consumers beforehand. Although slightly idealistic given the nature of states that usually conduct these kinds of shutdowns, these criteria are a good starting point from which to analyze the motives and actions of any government cutting off internet access.
The United Nations also offer guidelines for the corporations that control internet access, advising them to take all lawful measures to avoid complying with a shutdown order. Additionally, the UN suggests they outline their commitment to avoiding shutdowns in their public policy statements and conduct due diligence in order to minimize human rights violations. The role that corporations play in the limiting of internet access and censorship is integral to the control that authoritarian governments hold over their populations.
With these international precedents already existing, we already have a good framework to work from regarding these shutdowns. National law can also have an impact on the prevalence of internet shutdowns, with laws existing in Costa Rice, Estonia, Finland, and France that protect the right to the internet to some degree. Anti-trust bills such as the Open App Markets Act (OAMA) and the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) would help to limit the powers of big tech companies based in the US. If passed, these bills would allow the international developer community to offer their applications to Chinese citizens, as well as prohibiting companies from applying their terms of service in ways that may discriminate against minority groups. Also essential to preventing shutdowns is ensuring that sanctions against an aggressive or discriminatory state do not interfere with the supply of internet service, cloud or encryption technology. The US recently relaxed certain sanctions against Iran, where widespread civil and women’s rights protests have resulted in restrictions and shutdowns. US official Wally Adeyemo describes the move as a way to “help the Iranian people be better equipped to counter the government’s efforts to surveil and censor them,”
Internet shutdowns are inherently undemocratic and severely detrimental to human rights. They halt the spread of reliable information and provide a means for the corrupt to dominate political conversations and enact policies that stifle personal freedoms. They deprive civilians of a virtual space to discuss policies concerning their interests and limits their civic participation. Shutdowns can, and often do, quash protests and justifiable civic dissent. In a world where many of us live some portion of our lives online, cutting the wires to the internet isolates a population from everyone else, an isolation that is no longer acceptable in our digital, hyper-connected online world.
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