UN: Internet shutdowns restrict rights of millions of people

Network disruption
Governments often justify Internet restrictions on the grounds of national security. However, this is usually not sufficient to justify them, experts criticize. (Source: IMAGO / Panthermedia)

Internet blackouts are having “dramatic real-life effects” on the lives and human rights of millions of people. That’s according to a new report released last week by the Office of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights. The issue needs much greater attention from states, international organizations, civil society and also businesses, it said.

Governments implement or order internet blackouts to intentionally prevent access to information and communications systems. This can involve blanket or regional shutdowns; or targeted blocking of individual services. Increasingly, however, the transmission speed is being throttled. Services are then still generally accessible, but can hardly be used.

The report states that such measures always affect many people and lead to “enormous collateral damage”. This is because numerous legitimate activities are always affected. In addition, people’s safety and well-being are directly threatened because, for example, without communication capabilities, they cannot be warned of danger.

According to the report, some governments also block VPN services, which can be used to access blocked websites, for example. In some cases, internet shutdowns are also accompanied by a shutdown of telephone networks, so that there are no longer any functioning communication systems in affected areas.

NGOs document internet shutdowns

From 2016 to 2021, NGOs have documented more than 900 internet blackouts in 74 countries – most of them in Asia and Africa. However, experts believe the actual number is even higher.

Access to the Internet, the report says, is widely recognized as a prerequisite for access to a range of human rights. An internet shutdown directly affects the right to freedom of expression and access to information, it said. The UN human rights watchdog cautions that under international human rights treaties, this right may only be restricted in specific cases. A general reference to public order or national security is usually not sufficient, but this is often how governments justify the measure.

In the course of progressive digitalization, the Internet is also important for the exercise of other human rights: for example, for the right to freedom of assembly and association, but also for the rights to education and health. Only “very rarely” is a blockade of the Internet proportionate.

According to the UN experts, governments resort to internet blackouts mainly in times of conflict or heightened political tensions, for example before elections or during large waves of protest.

Between 2016 and 2021, NGOs documented 225 internet shutdowns during protests directed against social, political or economic grievances. The goal of such blockades, they say, is to suppress demonstrations. This is because, on the one hand, it limits the ability to mobilize large groups quickly. On the other hand, the visibility of the protests is also reduced. According to international human rights treaties, however, the Internet may not be blocked in connection with peaceful protests.

Election monitoring becomes more difficult

Internet blackouts were also imposed during 52 elections between 2016 and 2021, according to the report. In 2019 alone, 14 African countries blocked the internet during election periods, according to the report. Human rights activists criticize this as limiting public discussion and making it more difficult to monitor the electoral process. According to the report, this is particularly problematic for opposition parties that rely on online campaigning due to limited resources. There were also obstacles to reporting, such as in Uganda last year.

Governments also shut down the Internet in the midst of armed conflicts. This also makes reporting difficult, he said, and it is harder to monitor human rights compliance. An internet shutdown may even be deliberate to cover up human rights abuses, it said.

The report cites Myanmar as an example: there, the military had seized power in February 2021 and cut both telephone and internet connections in parts of the country (in German). According to the organization Access Now, internet shutdowns continue to occur in Myanmar, for example in places where the military faces resistance. The organization criticizes that people thus do not receive information about military operations and cannot get to safety. The transport of vital goods is also restricted because it is difficult to plan safe routes.

The UN report also states that governments even shut down the Internet during examination periods to prevent cheating. As recently as June, Sudan blocked the Internet for several hours on each of eleven consecutive days.

Health sector affected

UN experts criticize that internet blackouts also restrict healthcare, social services and education. For example, medical staff would no longer be able to exchange information, and medication deliveries could be interrupted. In times like the Covid-19 pandemic, people would be cut off from important health information.

Distance learning is also restricted by blockages – such as in the Kashmir region of India. According to Access Now, the internet there was shut down for more than 500 days continuously between August 2019 and February 2021.

The economy is also feeling the effects of the shutdowns, according to the UN report. According to World Bank calculations, internet shutdowns in Myanmar cost nearly $2.9 billion between February and December 2021. This has wiped out the economic progress of the past decade, it said.

While the UN experts welcome the fact that courts have already declared internet shutdowns illegal in the past or banned authorities from ordering them in the future. However, the report also identifies practical problems in taking legal action against internet shutdowns: Proceedings often take years. Some judges would then refrain from passing judgment because the blockade is no longer in force.

States should not impose internet shutdowns

As a rule, states should not impose internet shutdowns, experts say. If they were to do so, the measure would have to be justified by publicly accessible laws. The public must also be informed in advance, and prior approval from a court or other independent body is needed.

According to the report, relevant authorities often do not publish information or admit that an internet blackout has been ordered. In 228 cases in 55 countries between 2016 and 2021, there was no official justification, it said.

UN experts also call on telecommunications companies to use all legally permissible means to prevent shutdowns. They should also provide information about blockades. Civil society should continue to document blockades and show those affected ways to circumvent internet shutdowns, they said. (js)