As part of our efforts around mapping digital resilience trends, challenges and opportunities, we’ve seen the impact that digital rights threats can have on civil society.
In recent years, internet shutdowns have become a pertinent issue, particularly during elections. In 2022, the #KeepItOn coalition tracked 187 internet shutdowns in 35 countries. Populations that have recently been on the receiving end of a shutdown during an election include those of Uganda and Belarus.
An internet shutdown is the intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information. Shutdowns can last for hours, days, or even weeks, and they often occur during politically sensitive periods, such as elections. The purpose of these shutdowns is often to control the narrative and limit public dissent. Sometimes they’re also used with the purported goal of preventing the spread of false information; however, it’s important to keep in mind who has the power to determine what information is ‘false’.
During a shutdown, citizens are unable to communicate with each other, access critical information (which negatively impacts their ability to make informed decisions), or hold their government to account. This leads to a significant decline in transparency, accountability, and ultimately the democratic process.
Internet shutdowns are a critical threat to internet freedom. International human rights law recognises the right to access information and freedom of expression as a fundamental human right, and governments that impose internet shutdowns during elections violate these rights. However, some governments are permitted by national laws and regulations to impose internet shutdowns during elections, citing public safety and security concerns.
Resources for staying online during internet shutdowns
By promoting digital capacity and encouraging the use of alternative and secure communication channels, we can strengthen digital resilience and minimise the impact of internet shutdowns on democratic processes.
Below are some resources and inspiration of work being done in these areas – with a reminder that developing strategies to respond to internet freedom threats should always be politically, socially and technically contextualised, timely, and, if possible, consulted through a local expert.
- Activists in Ethiopia, Sudan and Nigeria are standing up against internet shutdowns in their countries.
- In Ethiopia, the Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy are attempting to insert digital literacy programs into the existing education curriculum.
- Beam Reports in Sudan are doing so by organising workshops and advocacy campaigns.
- At Connect Hub NG in Nigeria, the team is similarly trying to combat shutdowns by building awareness around human rights, democracy, and freedom of expression.
- For guidance on digital tools, see this list of five ways to stay online during government shutdowns published by restofworld.org. The list recommends, among other things (keeping in mind that some of these tools are illegal in some countries, so make sure to check their legal status in your context beforehand):
- Using a trusted VPN provider to allow access to sites and platforms that may be blocked in your country (this should be set up in advance!).
- A TOR Browser to protect your privacy.
- Platforms that function via a local mesh network that allow users to send encrypted messages to people nearby via Bluetooth.
- AccessNow has also shared recommendations around browsing securely and using circumvention tools. Extensions such as HTTPS Everywhere ensures that you access websites only via encrypted connections (if the website offers this – most reputable news sites should) and proxy tools such as Lantern, which reroute your requests through other computers, may help you browse more securely and privately.
Further key resources to learn more about internet shutdowns include:
- AccessNow’s Internet Shutdowns and Elections Handbook.
- AccessNow’s Election Watch 2023, which provides information on elections at risk of internet shutdowns in 2023.
- Internews’ Defending the Internet with Data, which provides information on its OPTIMA Resource Library (which in turn maps existing resources and identifies gaps).
- Internet shutdowns: trends, causes, legal implications and impacts on a range of human rights.
- Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Government Internet Shutdowns Are Changing. How Should Citizens and Democracies Respond?
Need support strengthening your digital resilience?
You don’t have to do this alone! If you would like tailored support thinking through increasing your digital resilience in times of internet shutdowns, please reach out to us. Our team has been supporting social justice organisations in over 30 countries with their tech and data challenges!
Image by NASA via Unsplash.