With the internet at our fingertips, we have access to anything we need: educational resources, social networks, and a place to air our views. This is how the digital world rumbles on for the most part. We take for granted our unobstructed access to information, where the world wide web has an answer for everything, even to questions you didn’t ask. In the modern world, the internet is so much a part of our daily lives, that to limit it is to limit our freedom.
Across the globe, governments are instructing internet service providers to restrict internet access, particularly to social media. This could be seen as those authorities attempting to exert control over citizens and limit the information they both receive and share. More worryingly, a lot of these internet shutdowns are taking place during elections.
Digital rights organisation, Access Now, has documented shutdowns in 33 countries between January 2015 and September 2016, including Turkey, Zambia and Vietnam, outlined in the map below.
In February 2016, Uganda faced a social media block on the day of the presidential elections. Telecommunications company MTN Uganda announced on Twitter: “The UCC has directed MTN to disable all Social Media & Mobile Money services due to a threat to Public Order & Safety.” President Museveni later told journalists that the networks had been shut down to stop users “telling lies.” On a day where democracy is in action through a presidential vote, restricting the right to free speech by censoring social media is problematic. In defiance of the restriction on free speech, many citizens used a Virtual Private Network to get around the block, and #UgandaDecides soon began trending in the country.
Since November 2015, Brazil has experienced three shutdowns of messaging service Whatsapp, a primary source of communication within the country both socially and for work. Companies, teachers and even doctors use the app to communicate internally and with clients. More than 100 million users were affected by shutdowns that lasted for between 12 and 48 hours. Letícia Sanchez from Lush Brazil says: “As we are very used to communicating and also working via Whatsapp, it really made our social communication hard, not to mention the feeling of being controlled and censored for no clear reason.”
Initially the shutdown went unexplained, but after some hours a public statement was given by the Court of Justice, reporting that this was a precautionary measure by the Federal Police, due to Whatsapp’s non-compliance in handing over user data to authorities. Letícia explains: “The court was obliging Facebook (owner of Whatsapp) to give access to private information and chat histories of certain people being investigated for certain crimes. The problem is that Whatsapp not only disagreed with the practice, but also stated that they don’t even have access to the chat histories, as all chats are encrypted.”
Shutting down one messaging service may not seem like it has a major impact, but Whatsapp plays a major role in communications across Brazil. Letícia says: “I was particularly angry about it and very shocked, as for me all kinds of digital communication tools are key for our social life and and freedom.”
Limiting internet access does not just impact on free speech and a free exchange of ideas, it impacts the economy and can be particularly dangerous during emergency situations. The emergency services can’t share vital information, family members can’t contact each other and journalists can’t access information.
In July 2016, a movement to ‘shut down Zimbabwe’ was largely organised through social media. The protest asked citizens to stay at home, in a day of non-violent protests against Robert Mugabe’s government and the resulting corruption and poverty. Potraz, the Postal and Telecommunications Authority of Zimbabwe, posted a warning over social media abuse stating that, “anyone generating, passing on or sharing such abusive or subversive materials which are tantamount to criminal behaviour, will be disconnected and the law will take its course.” This threat was clearly a measure to limit free speech, and an attempt to disrupt the protest.
The United Nations Human Rights Council has recently passed a resolution, stating that people should have the same rights online as they do offline, such as freedom of expression and choice of media. Condemning countries that block or limit internet access is a triumph for freedom of expression and shows that the UN is taking internet blackouts seriously, but without any legal weight behind the resolution, will leaders take note?
Deji Bryce Olukotun, Senior Global Advocacy Manager at Access Now, says: “As the most important institution in the world where every country has a voice, the UN can set global norms for people to follow, essentially telling people what the international community has agreed to. The resolution isn't binding like an international treaty, but it does elevate issues into the consciousness of the world's leaders.”
The UN sees internet shutdowns as a serious issue, not least because they often serve as a warning of other human rights violations.
Deji says, “People are paying attention to the horrible effects that shutdowns have on people's lives around the world. Now it's up to us to spread the word so that governments stop ordering these disruptions.”
When people are being silenced, the best thing we can do is speak up. Whether it’s happening on our patch or the other side of the globe, we can tell world leaders that shutdowns aren’t acceptable anywhere.