Online Democracy

In the past month, 75% of Iraq’s internet was turned off amid mass anti-corruption protests. In Bangladesh, Rohingya refugee camps are suffering from drastic restrictions in telecommunication capability and internet access, cutting off their ability to share information about life in the camps and limiting the efficacy of humanitarian aid workers. Hongongers fear an onslaught of censorship and internet restrictions in the wake of Carrie Lam’s invocation of the Emergency Regulations Ordinance to ban face masks in public. We take it for granted that when we open an internet browser we will be able to access and share information and communicate freely. But across the globe, state leaders are increasingly restricting internet access as a means of quieting dissent.

Internet shutdowns are a global phenomenon of dubious efficacy that threaten human rights and hurt the economy. Telecommunication and technology companies in the private sector can and should resist government-ordered shutdowns where possible, and they should enable circumvention tools if necessary to facilitate access to information.

The internet is a democratizing force that increases the flow of information and facilitates the spread of ideas. In June 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution affirming that the rights people have offline should also be protected online,condemning “measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law,” and calling “on all States to refrain from and cease such measures.”

And yet authoritarian rulers are increasingly shutting down the internet: in 2018 there were 188 internet shutdowns globally, up from 75 in 2016. According to Access Now, an internet shutdown “is an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.” This can take the form of a total internet blackout in which all internet services are switched off, including mobile and landline access, or a partial shutdown, in which certain websites or applications are blocked.

The democratization of information, generally seen as a positive, equalizing force, threatens leaders striving to consolidate power and control political narratives. Opposition movements develop and expand via social media, and people are increasingly able to share their stories, oftentimes in contrast to the narratives promulgated by repressive governments. Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) imposed a month-long internet black out in June of this year in response to a growing number of protests about the price of bread and the desire for democratic governance. On June 3, 2019 there was a particularly brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Khartoum. Over a hundred people were reportedly killed, and hundreds of others were injured. In response, the TMC ordered telecom companies to black out the entire network, allegedly to prevent the spread of false information for the sake of national security. Additional factors likely contributed to the TMC’s decision to block the internet, such as restricting the spread of information about the murderous tactics used by the TMC and to limit the ability of protestors to share information and coordinate future protests. This intentional measure to disrupt access to online-information is a clear violation of international human rights law, as outlined in the UN resolution on the Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet.

Internet shutdowns are on the rise, even though there is no evidence that they work. In fact, internet shutdowns may actually contribute to increased protest and dissatisfaction by drawing attention to the causes being demonstrated against and facilitating the proliferation of false information, given the dearth of reliable news sources. During the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the government shut down the internet for five days. During this time, protests became increasingly decentralized, and local pockets of resistance proliferated. Security forces were unable to contain these localized outbursts, and ten days later Hosni Mubarak’s government collapsed.

There are also enormous economic costs: a Brookings report from October 2016 found that internet shutdowns in 2015 cost $2.4 billion globally. Today’s economy depends on the internet to function: shutting it down, in whole or in part, disrupts economic growth and productivity. In January 2019, the Zimbabwean government shut down the internet for days in an apparent attempt to hide the repressive tactics security forces were using against protesters challenging the soaring price of gasoline. Peter Makichi, a fuel merchant, was unable to transfer money to his suppliers due to the internet shutdown, and he could not communicate with his clients who subsequently cancelled his contracts. He had to close 75% of his branches and fire nearly 80% of his employees, reducing his monthly profits by 90%. A three-day internet shutdown in Zimbabwe, a country with a population of 17 million, was estimated to cost the country more than $17,227, 262.

While there are a few expensive methods for people to circumvent government-ordered shutdowns, this unfairly places the burden of accessing the internet on individuals. Tools like international SIM cards, VPNs, or web-proxy services are only accessible to a small portion of the population, and governments are able to limit the efficacy of these work-arounds. By contrast, telecommunication companies can resist government ordered service disruptions and these tech companies have the capability to facilitate access to the internet during shutdowns, as well as moral obligations to do so.

While it is often difficult for telecom companies to defy government-ordered internet blockages, there are steps that they can take. Internet and mobile service providers can publish data about how service disruptions affect their business, they can sue governments for ordering unlawful shutdowns, and they can demand written orders for the shutdown, signed by appropriate judicial authorities. In July 2014, four telecommunication companies in the Central African Republic jointly resisted the government’s request to ban all international networking agreements and SMS capabilities.  This united front against the government proved effective, especially given that the law was on the side of the telecom, companies. This suggests that telecom companies have some agency in resisting unlawful government orders, a significant and promising step in ensuring fair and free access to the internet. 

There are other technological solutions worth exploring, in case telecom companies are unable to resist or delay government orders for shutdowns. During the 2011 internet shutdown in Egypt, Google and Twitter launched a service allowing people to tweet by phone calls, which were not subject to disruptions. Egyptians could dial a specific number and leave a voicemail, and then a link to the voicemail would be tweeted out with hashtag #egypt. This service allowed people in the country to broadly disseminate information that countered the government’s official political narrative. Nevertheless, services like call-to-tweet and text-to-tweet are only selectively enacted.

According to various corporate mission and vision statements, technology and social media services exist to facilitate the flow of information and ideas across borders. Google’s corporate mission statement is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Twitter seeks “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers.” These companies should hold themselves accountable to their mission statements, to resist government-ordered service disruptions when possible and to enact available circumvention tools when necessary.   

Freedom of speech and assembly are fundamental human rights, and should be protected online as well as offline. Global internet governance is a key issue today, and governments have a shared responsibility with the private sector to respect human rights. In the face of authoritarian and repressive governments seeking to limit access to the internet, telecom companies should use every possible tool to resist shutting down service, and companies like Google and Twitter should explore tactics to more easily facilitate information flows, in accordance with their mission statements.

Photo: Image via Robert Patterson (Flickr)

About the Author

Annie Lehman-Ludwig '20 is the Associate Section Manager for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Annie can be reached at anna_lehman-ludwig@brown.edu

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