Silence isn’t golden: how Internet shutdowns threaten people’s rights

By Meera Selva, Internews Europe CEO

When we talk about connectivity in current times, we are having two conversations at once. One focuses on all the potential – of digital civil spaces, low-cost banking transactions, early warning systems, and humanitarian cross-border payments that get food and vital services to transient communities in distress. The other, darker conversation, is about governments and regulators around the world considering just how and when to pull the plug on connectivity and impose internet shutdowns and data blackouts.

At MWC Barcelona this year, the world’s largest gathering of mobile phone operators, the conversations on connectivity focused mainly on the first issue – the potential of creating digital economies and how AI could be harnessed to create seamless digital lives across the world. But for the first time, there were also open discussions about the second issue – the impact and harm of internet shutdowns. Civil society organisations, media, and human rights activists have talked about this for years – but the fact that telecom companies themselves want to openly address the issue shows how serious the situation is becoming.

2024 is unfortunately already throwing the subject into sharp focus. In both Senegal and Pakistan, long planned elections descended into chaos, compounded by their government’s decision to shut down Internet access. It’s important to note that these recent incidents are not happening in isolation – the latest research from OHCHR found that between 2016 and 2021 there were at least 931 government-ordered Internet disruptions in 74 counties globally and at least 225 public demonstrations and 52 elections were affected by shutdowns.

Internet shutdowns refer to the range of mechanisms authorities employ to limit digital access, depriving citizens of their voice and undermining the foundations of democracy. This can be achieved through blocking specific sites, throttling services, cutting off mobile connectivity, and full-blown blackouts. By distorting the information space people need to survive, shutdowns are becoming a big threat to civilian populations.

Securitisation theory refers to the process where an issue is portrayed as an existential threat that urgently needs to be dealt with in the name of ‘security’. So, as governments increasingly see cyberspace as an area where security threats emerge, they seek to control it by limiting or denying access.

Digital access is vital for human rights, as it supports the right to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and association. Internet shutdowns sit in total opposition to this. They allow governments to act with impunity, detain people without trial, and cut them off from essential services under cover of darkness. They allow for the spread of state-sponsored disinformation, while denying citizens access to independent news and information they need to make informed decisions about their lives.

Populations are impacted asymmetrically. Internet shutdowns hit hardest the marginalised and vulnerable communities that are already often ignored or underserved by traditional media – including gig workers that rely on connectivity to sustain themselves. The economic harm of Internet shutdowns is also well documented, hampering financial transactions, slowing down trade, and creating economic uncertainty.

Civil society organisations, including Internews, are doing what they can to mitigate the impact of shutdowns. Internews is a member of the Emergency Telecom Cluster, which works on connectivity in crisis, including what they call “Services to Communities”. This includes for instance setting up public Wi-Fi hotspots in crisis-affected areas. Likewise, through projects like Prepare, Prevent, and Resist and Greater Internet Freedom, Internews collaborates with local groups to challenge these oppressive measures and ensure that communities have access to reliable information. The Always On Network service meanwhile tries to create conversations between governments, mobile operators, banks and businesses to see if connectivity can be maintained as much as possible to keep goods and services moving digitally. But even with these measures, the free flow of goods and services is nothing without the free flow of information alongside it.

Shutdowns do incalculable harm to people’s trust in digital services. Mobile phone operators find themselves in an impossible position. They are obliged to comply with legal demands and regulatory requirements to throttle, limit or fully block services under Service Restriction Orders, but they also have signed contracts with their customers to provide these services in a reliable and consistent manner. In highly charged or politicised moments such as the days surrounding elections, it makes them appear as if they are taking sides and ultimately dents their reputation. It also puts their staff at risk: making them targets among the communities they work in.

This damages not just the mobile operators but all institutions. Trust in government, media, and institutions is falling. The private sector is one area where trust levels remain relatively steady: if this is also eroded, people will turn in higher numbers to charlatans, bad actors, and mischief makers. Falling trust overall also leads to polarization and a weakening of the social fabric, which in turn drives more discontent and dissent.

In other words, shutting off the internet creates conditions that lead governments to believe, erroneously, that the only way forward is to order more shutdowns.

This lack of trust is also dangerous in crisis situations. Mobile phones can literally save lives in a humanitarian crisis but breaks in connectivity can cause long lasting harm. As we have seen in both Sudan and Gaza, a lack or complete loss of connectivity has contributed to the stopping of aid reaching those who need it most and has fractured trust among citizens and the international community.

Addressing the root causes of Internet shutdowns requires a broad array of strategies. The key problem with shutdowns is that it’s hard to identify when one is happening – network measurement data is crucial to identify what is occurring and how it is being imposed. Governments must be held accountable for their actions, and robust legal frameworks must be established to safeguard digital rights. Internews is arguing for stronger collaboration among stakeholders, including civil society, academia, governments, and tech companies, to help encourage better transparency and accountability on Internet outages.

Ultimately, trying to stop people talking to each other is a fool’s errand. Communication and contact are what keep us alive. In a world where this is done digitally, people will find ways to keep the contact going, even during shutdowns. There have been cases where, when everything except bank transfers have been blocked, people use the reference section on the transfers to send each other messages. People will talk, they will reach out to each other, they will tell stories.

Despite this, the menace of Internet shutdowns cannot be overstated. They are not only an attack on digital rights but also a direct assault on democracy and freedom. It’s imperative that we collectively condemn and resist these assaults on freedom of expression and information and continue to protect the rights of all individuals to access reliable information safely and freely.