In 2019, for the first time, a majority of the world’s population was able to access the internet. But just as humanity had crossed that threshold, governments worldwide set an appalling record of their own, shutting down the internet and communication networks more frequently than ever before. The COVID-19 pandemic soon created a tapestry of overlapping crises that throttled access to critical health information. Civil society, researchers, investors, and much of the private sector agree that shutdowns flout a litany of human rights, sabotage local and national economies, and routinely fail to achieve their stated goals. Nonetheless, there is mounting evidence that the human rights community is losing ground.
Shutdowns have evolved from shambolic tactics to strategic instruments used alongside an array of other repressive tools. As governments have diversified their tactics, they have also dialed up the hostility of their discourse. Officials often justify today’s network shutdowns by decrying the “arrogance” and alleged political favoritism of social media companies, denouncing how platforms undermine the “sovereignty and integrity” of the nation, and emphasizing that communication networks threaten the “corporate existence” of the countries in which they operate.
The increasingly adversarial relationship between governments and platforms is complemented by another trend: the hijacking of arguments formulated by the digital rights community. In rationalizing recent blackouts and regulatory moves to tame social media, the governments of India and Nigeria, for example, have accused platforms of spreading misinformation, a frequent charge leveled by advocacy groups. Using this language cloaks repressive government actions with a semblance of legitimacy. But these warning shots are being leveled not just at social media giants, but at all tech companies operating in those countries, especially firms that provide critical communications infrastructure for millions of people.
Taken to an extreme, governments’ disdain for international human rights norms and their defiant stance against open communications networks is pushing civic resistance to the breaking point. One example is the announced withdrawal of the Norwegian telecommunications firm Telenor from Myanmar this year. Unlike Myanmar’s other three operators, the company had vocally opposed internet shutdowns for years and taken steps to mitigate their impact. When the military junta seized power in February, however, Telenor faced the prospect of carrying out orders in support of a nationwide digital siege while presumably under a gag order. Ultimately, the company sold its operations in Myanmar to an investment group with a dubious human rights record with no indications of due diligence in this regard. In executing the sale, Telenor transferred user data for 18 million individuals to an entity that had made no commitment to protect it, virtually ensuring future erosions of digital rights. Telenor’s retreat has sent an unfortunate signal that resistance to shutdowns is futile—at least when dealing with committed authoritarian regimes.
To make matters worse, few governments have presented any evidence about the necessity for carrying out shutdowns, nor demonstrated accountability for their impact. India’s telecom suspension rules of 2017, for instance, are often completely ignored. Shutdown orders worldwide are rarely made public. High-level declarations, such as the G7 Open Societies statement, also provide little reason for optimism; under pressure from the Indian government, the communiqué only condemned “politically motivated” shutdowns, perpetuating the false notion that a country could shut down the internet for matters of law and order separate from political motivation. These loopholes will allow scores of internet blackouts to continue.
Yet, there are glimmers of hope. International civil society has maintained a relentless focus on preventing shutdowns and keeping them in the spotlight. Individual groups and diverse coalitions alike have scrutinized companies’ shutdown policies, issued collective statements ahead of contentious elections, thrown their weight behind legal interventions, blown the whistle using traffic measurement tools, and exposed government-mandated killings that blackouts had concealed. The United States has also been outspoken in increasing diplomatic pressure against countries regularly shutting down the internet. Furthermore, the recent ruling by the Court of the Justice of the Economic Community of West African States against Togo regarding its 2017 shutdowns creates a strong precedent for successful litigation. Nonetheless, for every time a government is held accountable for its actions, dozens of its peers continue to plunge their citizens into darkness with little consequence. With millions of lives on the line, continued pushback against shutdown-prone governments must be an urgent priority for the international community.