Freedom Online: The Global Rise in Intentional Internet Disruptions

Posted by Tom Malinowski
November 21, 2016
A computer screen displays a 404 error message. [iStock photo]

In late October, I attended the sixth annual Freedom Online Conference (FOC) in San José, Costa Rica.  It was my third FOC, including Tallinn in 2014 and Ulaanbaatar in 2015.  Every year, I am thrilled to see the growing number of governments joining the Coalition to promote and protect human rights online through multilateral diplomacy and multi-stakeholder engagement.  This year, more than 200 participants representing government, civil society, business, and academia from 47 countries came together to discuss the role of the Coalition in advancing Internet freedom.

A worrying trend at the top of the conference agenda was the global rise in intentional shutdowns of the Internet and mobile networks. According to modest estimates, some 25 governments on almost every continent have intentionally prevented or disrupted access to such networks more than 50 times since the beginning of 2016, a rate of at least once every six days. 

Earlier this year, we joined consensus at the UN Human Rights Council in passing a resolution condemning intentional disruptions of access to or dissemination of information online, in violation of human rights law.  This Internet freedom resolution, which calls on States to refrain from and cease network disruptions, echoes a FOC joint statement from 2011 that labeled “mandatory blocking” of social networking technologies and platforms to be “an extreme measure” strictly subject to human rights law.

The 32nd Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council at the U.N. Office in Geneva. [U.S. Mission Photo/Eric Bridiers]

The justifications given for these disruptions range from preventing students from cheating on exams, to shielding local telecommunications companies from foreign competition, to protecting national security and the integrity of elections. However few, if any, of these shutdowns meet the established test for restrictions on freedom of expression, namely, being the least restrictive measures for achieving the legitimate aims listed under Article 19(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political  Rights. On the contrary, these are blanket prohibitions, which have not been proven to be necessary or provided for by law.

These network disruptions have a major economic impact.  A Brookings Institution report documents the $2.4 billion cost of Internet shutdowns from July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016.  A Deloitte study provides a framework for governments, industry, and civil society to calculate the economic impact of ongoing and future disruptions.  The Brookings report estimates Ethiopia suffered a US$8.5 million loss for an April Internet shutdown.  More recently, in October, Ethiopia initiated a new shutdown as part of the government’s ongoing state of emergency, which the Deloitte study suggests cost the Ethiopian economy just under half-a-million U.S. dollars a day in lost GDP, as a low-connectivity country with a population of 94 million and per capita GDP of U.S. $505.

On October 7, the Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights cast a spotlight on the Ethiopian government for “cutting off access to mobile data services in parts of the country, including in Addis Ababa.”  When such access is blocked, Internet and mobile users are cut off from critical services for e-commerce, tourism, humanitarian relief, education, and more.  

An Internet cafe in Ethiopia. [Photo by Charles Roffey]

Some governments have sought to minimize economic impacts by tailoring disruptions.  Following contested presidential elections in September, the Government of Gabon restricted access to a select number of social media sites and imposed a nightly Internet shutdown. Yet, despite allowing for daytime access to the Internet, Gabonese telecommunications companies reported millions of dollars in losses that month.

It is also particularly alarming that elections-related Internet shutdowns are becoming increasingly common.  In February, the Government of Uganda ordered mobile phone and Internet service providers to block access to social media sites on the day of contested national elections.  Weeks later, the Government of the Republic of Congo ordered a nationwide shutdown of mobile phone networks in the lead up to national elections.

A man looks uses his mobile phone to view a photo of  Muhammad Ali on the internet, in the city of Kinshasa, Congo. [AP Photo]

Not all news on network disruptions is bad news, though. In August, Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama publicly reaffirmed the Government of Ghana’s commitment to protect freedom of expression online and refrain from restricting social media use in the lead up to national elections in December.  This welcome announcement set a positive regional precedent and amended widely criticized comments from a senior police official in Ghana calling for a state-sponsored disruption of social media access around the election.

The United States government commends the high-level initiative taken by the Government of Ghana to reaffirm its support of human rights online.  We urge the Government of Ethiopia to follow suit and restore access to the global Internet for all its citizens. Likewise, we urge governments everywhere to protect and promote the rights to freedom of expression and association as guaranteed under international human rights commitments.

About the Author: Tom Malinowski serves as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears on the Department's Foggy Bottom publication on Medium.com.

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