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Putting digital rights into action

In a digital age, the connection between human rights and the internet is getting stronger. The real world impact of internet shutdowns is being documented by digital rights groups, and while the practice of blocking access has been condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Council, shutdowns have only increased. How internet shutdowns can be stopped is a pressing question.

The 35th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council is now underway until 23 June 2017, and digital rights are high on the agenda. As discussions take place throughout this month, a group of digital rights organisations co-sponsored a side event exploring ways to stop internet shutdowns.

These shutdowns happen when governments order internet service providers to restrict internet access. They usually occur during times of unrest, protests, elections, and even during school exams.

U.N. special rapporteur David Kaye joined the panel discussion, following the publication of his report outlining issues around internet shutdowns, network neutrality and surveillance.

Alongside looking at state access to private data, the report outlines how governments behave in relation to shutdowns, and what happens when internet shutdowns are used as a tool to implement censorship.

It gives a clear message: the same rights people have offline, must also be protected online. “Individuals depend on digital access to exercise fundamental rights, including freedom of opinion and expression, the right to life and a range of economic, social and cultural rights.”

Among the panel members was Gayatri Khandhadai from Association for Progressive Communications, an organisation supporting internet access to help improve lives. She said that the Human Rights Council needs to send out the message that network shutdowns are not acceptable and not needed.

When communication tools are blocked, so too is freedom of speech. However, there are even further implications for internet shutdowns, which are arguments that David Kaye suggests might resonate more with governments.

The economic impact is one of those arguments. The Brookings Institute recently released a study, that found that between 1 July 2015 and 30 June 2016, the cost of internet shutdowns was $2.4 billion USD globally. This figure is conservative, and likely to be a low estimate of the real impact.

While governments are already under pressure from digital rights organisations to commit to ending shutdowns, the panel also questioned the role of networks when it comes to protecting rights online. David Kaye suggested internet service providers, telecommunication companies and internet exchange points should be aware of potential human rights issues, and push for clarification from governments when needed. When it comes to internet shutdowns, transparency from governments must be a priority - something the panel agreed on.

Digital rights organisation Access Now documented 56 internet shutdowns in 2016, compared to 15 the previous year. The group co-sponsored the panel, and said that they fully support David Kaye’s findings that both companies and governments must do more to ensure free, open, and secure access to human rights online.

The group’s general counsel, Peter Micek, was in Geneva for the event. He said that David Kaye’s report “balances the need for rights-respecting companies to push back against abusive government orders (like shutdowns), while also showing the necessary role for regulation to prevent net neutrality violations and other discrimination.”

He said:  “Every shutdown is unacceptable. They need to stop, yet they continue, despite our outrage. This frustrating reality shows that no, we haven't done enough. We'll have to keep innovating and collaborating to bring an end to shutdowns.”

A commitment to stop internet shutdowns has been made by the UN Human Rights Council, and David Kaye’s recommendations may now pave the way for action.

UNHRC side event on internet shutdowns
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