Weaponizing internet shutdowns to evade accountability for rights violations
Internet shutdowns are used to quash dissent and conceal abuses. The rights community should combat this authoritarian tactic.
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Any internet shutdown constitutes a human rights violation. But in many instances, governments use internet shutdowns to cover up grave violations of individuals’ human rights, including illegitimate power grabs, electoral interference, state-sanctioned violence against peaceful protestors, and extrajudicial killings of political dissidents. This authoritarian tactic allows governments not only to abuse human rights under the cover of darkness but also to evade accountability for their actions.
Internet shutdowns as an authoritarian tool
Access to the internet has become essential for the realization and enjoyment of many human rights, including the right to free expression and access to information, to health, to education, and to work. Yet, in 2022 alone, there were over 180 internet shutdowns in 35 countries around the world.
Access Now define a shutdown as “an interference with electronic systems primarily used for person-to-person communications, intended to render them inaccessible or effectively unusable, to exert control over the flow of information.” Some countries have laws and regulations in place allowing the state to order shutdowns in times of “national emergency,” often via written orders to relevant telecommunications companies. In other countries, shutdowns may be ordered in secrecy with little transparency over who has made the decision or why, or for how long internet access will be disrupted.
Regardless of domestic law, the UN Human Rights Council has made it clear that states should refrain from imposing internet shutdowns due to their “indiscriminate and disproportionate impacts on human rights.” The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has also condemned internet shutdowns as impermissible restrictions on individuals’ free expression and access to information.
Despite the growing body of international guidance against shutdowns, states continue to use them as an authoritarian tool to suppress dissent and evade accountability. Global Partners Digital and Access Now’s recent research explores how internet shutdowns in Africa and the Middle East are compounding violations of individuals’ human rights.
They found nearly 50 documented internet shutdowns in Africa and the Middle East between 2018 and 2022 occurring alongside violations of rights to assembly or to participate in political and public life and free and fair elections. For example, the government of Jordan throttled internet access and Facebook Live services in a bid to suppress protests about teachers’ pay in August 2020 and COVID-19 restrictions in March 2021. Chad disrupted internet services for nearly a week in February 2021 during protests against then president Idriss Déby and just after members of the presidential guard attacked a prominent opposition politician. In several cases, governments have also shut down the internet just before or just after coup d’etats or contested elections—including in Burkina Faso, Somalia, and Uganda.
Shutdowns are also used to cover up human rights abuses involving physically violent treatment, including arbitrary deprivation of life, disappearance, torture, and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Many are aware of Iran’s extensive internet shutdowns last year during protests against the police killing of Mahsa Amini—but we found nearly 30 other examples across 12 countries in Africa and the Middle East where internet shutdowns coincided with incidents of police brutality, extrajudicial arrests, and killings by security forces between 2018 and 2022.
The Tigray shutdown: Cycles of violence and social harm
In a few extreme cases, internet shutdowns have concealed violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. A prominent example is the Tigray region in Ethiopia, which has experienced the longest, at over two years, and most severe shutdown ever recorded amid a humanitarian disaster and war crimes.
Ethiopia has a long history of internet shutdowns. The government retains centralized control over its national telecommunications infrastructure and, without direct access to submarine cable landing stations, the country is largely dependent on satellite connection to the international internet. These factors have enabled the government to restrict information flows and access to the internet and mobile phone services, and the general population has come to expect internet shutdowns. The communication siege on Tigray, however, has been unprecedented.
This shutdown began in November 2020 at the onset of military confrontation between the Ethiopian government and its allies on one side and security forces of the Tigray region on the other. The Ethiopian government declared a state of emergency and suspended all government services, including electricity, banking, phone services, and internet. While the government claims it is not responsible for the communication blackout, international investigations indicate otherwise, revealing an intent to conceal and control flow of information about the civil war. Access to Tigray remains restricted for international media and human rights investigators, including the African Union–led inquiry and the commission set by the UN Human Rights Council.
Regardless of whether connectivity is restored, it is clear that the shutdown has had irreversible long-term effects on the civilian population of Tigray. It disconnected even those in close proximity and crippled existing community systems, such as healthcare, businesses, banking, and education. It deprived Tigrayans of the means to prevent, monitor, report, corroborate, or initiate responses to reported atrocities and deteriorating humanitarian conditions, leaving the victims and survivors of these crimes unable to pursue justice and accountability. And it disconnected Tigrayans from the world and took away their ownership of their own story, enabling the weaponization of disinformation, extremist narratives, and hate speech targeting Tigrayans. This has exacerbated cycles of violence and the region’s isolation from the rest of Ethiopia.
Ultimately, the shutdown has caused irreversible harm to Indigenous communities and severely damaged Ethiopia’s social fabric, diminishing the possibility of peace and reconciliation and risking further cycles of chaos and violence.
Shining a light on shutdowns
It’s vital that governments deploying these tactics are held accountable through any measures possible. Civil society groups have successfully launched campaigns to raise awareness and encourage governments to commit to protecting internet access, particularly around elections or other key political periods. The Freedom Online Coalition has also set up a task force on internet shutdowns to develop resources and guidelines to help member states engage diplomatically on internet shutdowns. Furthermore, in some regulatory environments where courts are independent, strategic litigation has shown promise in redressing the harms of internet shutdowns and discouraging states from using them.
Investors, funders, telecommunications companies, and the broader human rights and policy communities should all support and uphold these vital efforts. Preventing internet shutdowns will help keep individuals connected and expose human rights violations taking place in darkness.
Jacqueline Rowe is policy lead at Global Partners Digital, where she researches and advocates rights-respecting approaches to online content moderation and digital platform regulation. Twitter: @JacquelineFRowe
Saba Mah’derom is a researcher and a board member of Women of Tigray, an organization dedicated to amplifying the voices of women and girls of Tigray. Mah’derom is engaged in matters related to digital rights and global response to reduce vulnerabilities and increase access to resources needed for communities to heal and thrive.