Internet shutdowns hurt much more than we realise: UN rights office

Shutting down internet affect people’s safety & well-beng, hamper information flow and harm the economy    

By Madhumita Paul
Published: Tuesday 28 June 2022

Governments across the world have resorted to shutting down internet citing a range of reasons. Now a United Nations-backed report has flagged that the effect of such shutdowns on the lives of millions have been largely underrated. 

Internet shutdowns are measures taken by a government or on behalf of a government, to intentionally disrupt access to and the use of information and communications systems online, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) mentioned in the report.

The episodes make it difficult to share and watch videos, live broadcasts and other journalistic work, OHCHR said. 

The shutdowns are often ordered during civil society movements, security measures as well as electoral proceedings, and severely restrict human rights monitoring and reporting, the global agency added. 

The restrictions also have considerable economic impacts, the authors noted in Internet shutdowns: Trends, causes, legal implications and impacts on a range of human rights.

History of repression

The first major internet shutdown that captured global attention took place in Egypt in 2011 and was accompanied by hundreds of arrests and killings, the authors noted.

The #KeepItOn coalition, which monitors internet shutdown episodes across the world, documented 931 shutdowns in 74 countries from 2016-2021, the report cited.

As many as 12 countries implemented more than 10 shutdowns during that period.  Globally, all regions have experienced multiple shutdowns, but the majority reported occurred in Asia and Africa, according to the report. 

India blocked or disrupted internet connections 106 times and at least 85 of India’s internet shutdown episodes were in Jammu & Kashmir, according to digital right advocacy group Access Now’s report. 

Almost half of all shutdowns recorded by civil society groups from 2016-2021 were carried out in the context of protests and political crisis, with 225 shutdowns recorded during public demonstrations relating to a vast range of social, political or economic grievances, as stated in the report. 

Shutdowns affected at least 52 elections in the period, according to the findings. In 2019 alone, 14 African countries disrupted access to the internet during electoral periods.

Such disruptions undermine or eliminate access to digital tools that are critical for campaigning, promoting public discussion, conducting voting and overseeing the electoral processes, the authors said. 

Disruptions severely inhibit the work of journalists and the media in general, a key element of fair elections. In Uganda, shutdowns undermined media coverage of the elections in 2021, amid reports of violent repressive measures, the researchers observed. 

Shutdowns following protests during electoral periods were also reported in countries such as Belarus and Niger, they added.

As many as 132 of the shutdowns recorded by civil society groups were officially justified by the need to control the spread of hate speech, disinformation or other forms of content deemed illegal or harmful, according to the researchers. 

Impact on economy, access to education, health

Internet shutdowns also carry major economic costs for all sectors, disrupting financial transactions, commerce and industry, the authors said. 

The World Bank recently calculated that Internet shutdowns in Myanmar alone had cost nearly $2.8 billion from February-December 2021, reversing economic progress made over the previous decade.

The episodes undermine learning outcomes and interfere with education planning and communication among teachers, school administrators and families, they added. 

"Hospitals being unable to contact their doctors in cases of emergency, voters being deprived of information about candidates, handicraft makers being cut off from customers and potentially facing imminent economic ruin, peaceful protesters who fall under violent attack being unable to call for help, when an Internet and telecommunications services shutdown occurs,” the report said.

Shutdowns also directly put people’s safety and well-being at risk.

Peggy Hicks, Director of the Thematic Engagement, Special Procedures and Right to Development Division, OHCHR, said:

199 shutdowns were justified by public safety concerns, and 150 were based on national security grounds. But many of those shutdowns were followed by spikes in violence.

The report noted that one of the greatest obstacles to reversing the trend towards a greater frequency of Internet shutdowns is the limited visibility of those measures and their impacts. 

The report urged states to refrain from imposing shutdowns, to maximise Internet access and remove the multiple obstacles standing in the way of communication.

It also called upon companies to speedily share information on disruptions and ensure that they take all possible lawful measures to prevent shutdowns they have been asked to implement.

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