KeepItOn: frequently asked questions

#KeepItOn: frequently asked questions

#KeepItOn: A global movement to end internet shutdowns

1. What is the #KeepItOn campaign?

It’s a campaign launched by Access Now in 2016 to help unite and organize the efforts of activists and organizations across the world to end internet shutdowns. It now represents over 300 organizations from 105 countries across the globe. Internet shutdowns are being used as a tool for repression across the globe, and the coalition is advancing the fight to stop them using a wide range of approaches, including grassroots advocacy, direct policy-maker engagement, technical support, corporate accountability, and legal intervention.

2. Who can join the #KeepItOn coalition?

Membership is open to not-for-profit and civil society organizations around the world, and you can put in your request to join the coalition here. Today the coalition includes research centers, press freedom organizations, human rights groups, impact litigators, public interest technologists, network measurement groups, and many other groups. Your request is vetted by the coalition, and any member can ask to be listed on our website and schedule an onboarding call with Access Now’s #KeepItOn Lead to learn how the coalition works together. We also welcome opportunities to work with you as a partner; we are eager to support journalists, technology companies, international organizations, policy makers, and others who want to join the fight to end internet shutdowns!

3. What is the #KeepItOn mailing list, and how does it work?

Access Now hosts an email list for coalition members working together to advance the campaign, and it has grown to a community of 350 individuals. Subscribing to the list is part of the process of joining the #KeepItOn coalition, as described in the question above. As a coalition member, you would use the list to alert the coalition to internet shutdowns that are taking place, share your resources, and coordinate or join collective advocacy initiatives such as open letters and press briefings. Your sharing of content on the list must adhere to Access Now’s Code of Conduct, which can be found here. You are expected to treat fellow subscribers with respect and bring solution-driven energy as we collectively work to make the internet open, secure, and accessible.

4. What strategies do you use to fight internet shutdowns?

There are many — and the toolset continues to grow. They include: monitoring, reporting, and documenting internet shutdowns and their impact on human rights; using strategic advocacy and litigation to engage with national and international stakeholders; pushing for corporate accountability and disclosure; engaging directly with policy makers; and launching grassroots campaigns. In addition, Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline offers technical assistance to coalition partners, providing guidance on tools to circumvent censorship.

5. How can I report a shutdown to the #KeepItOn coalition?

You can report any internet shutdowns you experience or have direct knowledge of — including complete cuts to internet access, slowed access (“throttling”), blocking of apps or tools for communicating (like messaging apps or VPNs), or notices from your internet provider that the internet will be shut down — by emailing [email protected]. You can call attention to shutdowns online using the hashtag #KeepItOn. If you experience a shutdown and want to help the coalition document and stop them, you can share your personal story about the negative impact the disruption has on your life, community, or business using this form, which is available in several languages. You can get technical assistance during a shutdown by contacting our Digital Security Helpline — a free-of-charge 24/7 resource for civil society actors, journalists, and human rights defenders around the world — at [email protected].

6. Who do I contact for more information about the #KeepItOn campaign?

Contact Felicia Anthonio, Campaigner and #KeepItOn Lead at Access Now, at [email protected].

Understanding internet shutdowns and their impact

7. What is an internet shutdown?

Experts have defined an internet shutdown as an “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.” It is typically governments that order them, and types of shutdown include “blanket” shutdowns (cutting access entirely), slowing access (“throttling”), and blocking communications platforms like messaging apps. People also refer to shutdowns as “blackouts,” “kill switches,” or “network disruptions.”

8. What reasons or justifications do governments usually give for shutting down the internet?

Governments attempt to justify shutdowns by claiming they are necessary to restore “public order” or “national security,” to “prevent the spread of misinformation/disinformation,” to “curb cheating on exams,” or for “technical reasons.” They typically order shutdowns under circumstances that reveal the shutdowns are in fact aimed at quelling protests or gagging citizens during important national events like elections.

9. Do internet shutdowns violate human rights?

Yes. Internet shutdowns interfere with the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, access to information, and freedom of assembly, among many other rights. Not only are shutdowns an attack on fundamental rights, they also have a severe negative impact on the economy, health care, education, and more.

10. How do internet shutdowns affect the economy and people’s livelihoods?

Internet shutdowns cripple economies. For instance, a four-day shutdown in Algeria in September 2020 cost the country’s economy an estimated 50 billion dinars (USD 388 million). In 2016, a study by the Brookings Institution, a prominent think tank, revealed that shutdowns drained USD 2.4 billion from the global economy between 2015 and 2016. Shutdowns also destabilize the income for people who rely on the internet to run and promote their small businesses and enterprises. Since the internet and communications tools help people in developing nations, particularly women and other marginalized groups, make a living, cutting or disrupting access to the internet means denying them their capacity to afford basic necessities, such as food, water, electricity, and education for their families.

Tools for implementing and circumventing internet shutdowns

11. Technically, how do governments and other actors implement internet shutdowns? Why is this important?

Connection to the internet or specific platforms can be disrupted at different layers of the internet stack, ranging from fundamental shutdowns that affect core infrastructure (such as mobile telecommunications networks or electrical grids) and throttling of network speeds, to targeted content filtering using tools such as Domain Name System (DNS) manipulation, Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), or Denial of Service (DoS) attacks. Understanding the technical means by which a shutdown has been implemented is key for effectively circumventing the shutdown. It can also help advocates better understand who is behind the shutdown and what tools they have at their disposal.

12. Can I use a virtual private network (VPN) or the Tor browser to bypass these blocks?

In some cases, yes, but it depends on what kind of shutdown you are facing. VPNs and tools like the Tor browser work by routing your connection to a website or app through another location, so when a shutdown is limited to a certain geographic area, service provider, or platform, a VPN can help. For example, most people can circumvent social media blocking by using Tor and VPNs. Oftentimes governments blocking social media platforms or other websites will also block access to VPN providers, making it difficult to install the tool once the shutdown is already in place, so it can be a good idea to download a VPN in advance if you are at risk of experiencing a shutdown.

13. Are VPNs safe to use? How do I choose a VPN?

Governments that censor the internet are also likely to monitor who is trying to get around that censorship, so it is important to consider your personal risks when deciding which tools to use. In some countries, circumvention tools like VPNs or the Tor browser are illegal. In choosing a VPN, know that they are not all created equal. A VPN gets a direct look at all of your internet browsing activity while you are using the tool, and that information can be very sensitive, so it’s important to use a VPN you can trust. For example, you should use a VPN that has an open source code which is publicly accessible and available for users to read and understand how the VPN works. You should also ensure that the VPN has been reviewed by trusted, independent auditors. If VPNs are censored or criminalized in your country, you can consider setting up your own VPN server outside of the country. If you are a civil society member, you can reach out to Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline via [email protected] for guidance.

Monitoring and documenting internet shutdowns

14. How do you document and report on cases of internet shutdowns?

Access Now has a robust working methodology that guides our data collection, verification, and confirmation process. To identify shutdown incidents, we closely monitor news and media reporting about shutdowns, protests, and other events that generally trigger shutdowns. We also utilize the #KeepItOn coalition mailing list where over 220 civil society organizations come together to alert the community about impending shutdowns. To verify initial shutdown reports, we coordinate with various platforms that host user traffic data to see if they have also identified a dip in traffic. We take the same information to local civil society actors to see if they have documented the same shutdowns and to inquire about the context that triggered the shutdown. After we verify the incident and understand the context, we input the data into our Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP). We regularly update our STOP methodology documentation as we update our sources and data points. Access Now publishes an annual #KeepItOn report sharing the data we have collected and analyzing key trends.

15. How do I verify an internet shutdown? What tools should I use?

You can measure internet censorship by using tools such as OONI Probe, which allows people to run tests and document evidence of various forms of network interference. OONI Probe test results are openly published on OONI Explorer in real-time. There is also IODA, which monitors the Internet, in near-real time, to identify Internet outages on various networks.

Stakeholders: Telcos & Internet Service Providers (ISPs)

16. Can internet service providers (ISPs) push back on government orders to cut off internet access?

Yes! In many cases, governments put internet shutdowns in place by ordering ISPs and telcos to disrupt their services, and these companies have an important role to play in bringing transparency to shutdowns when they happen and stopping them going forward. To do their part, companies should only comply with shutdown orders to the extent it is legally required, minimizing the disruption’s duration, range of services affected, and geographic scope. Companies should demand that orders be sent in writing, signed by the proper official, and adhere to a legal justification. To mitigate harm, companies should also have clear policies about how and when they notify customers of service disruptions before, during, and after a shutdown. They should also consider disclosing the order publicly, joining with other telcos and ISPs to push back in court and through private lobbying, documenting shutdowns’ human rights impacts and economic costs, and sharing information with civil society.

17. What guidelines should companies follow to protect human rights and fight internet shutdowns?

The two foundational frameworks are the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Entities. Both require due diligence, so a company knows its impacts on human rights, and takes steps to prevent and mitigate harmful activity. Access Now distilled this guidance into the Telco Action Plan and Telco Remedy Plan. When it comes to disclosures, we promote the indicators in the Corporate Accountability Index by Ranking Digital Rights. The multistakeholder Global Network Initiative (GNI) also has a clear set of principles for companies to follow when faced with internet shutdown orders.

18. Why do companies continue to comply with government orders to shut down the internet?

In addition to the human rights impacts, shutting down networks and services is not good for business. Yet service providers often comply with shutdown orders to avoid government retaliation against their company, which could threaten their assets, infrastructure and equipment, their operating licenses, or even the legal and physical security of their staff. In some cases, companies choose to comply with government demands for shutdowns more limited in scope to avoid loss of service to their entire network. These challenges highlight the importance of the resources listed above and of coordination with civil society and other stakeholders.

Stakeholders: International Organizations

19. What role do international organizations and international human rights law play in the fight to end internet shutdowns?

Statements from United Nations officials, as well as regional human rights systems, are important tools for judges determining whether government shutdown orders violate domestic and international law. They also help create political pressure that increases the cost of internet shutdowns for governments who order them, and help to build a shared consensus that internet shutdowns violate human rights and should not be allowed.

20. What have international organizations said about internet shutdowns?

Responding to advocacy efforts, including those by members of the #KeepItOn coalition, high-level figures and international and regional bodies have strongly denounced internet shutdowns, decrying their negative impact on human rights. As early as 2011, The United Nations (U.N.) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media, the Organization of American States (OAS) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information issued a joint declaration stating that cutting off access to the internet “can never be justified, including on public order or national security grounds.” From there, the 2016 U.N. resolution on The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet condemns internet shutdowns, and urges states to refrain from ordering them, a resolution further maintained in 2018. In 2016, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights also passed a resolution condemning government-ordered shutdowns during elections or protests. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and Special Rapporteurs have condemned shutdowns, and cite the #KeepItOn coalition’s data on internet shutdowns in their reports to U.N. bodies. These reports include the 2019 Human Rights Council Report on Freedom of peaceful assembly and association in the digital age, and the 2020 Human Rights Council Report on Disease Pandemics and freedom of opinion and expression. Access Now’s recommendations against internet shutdowns have also been reflected in the OHCHR Universal Periodic Review cycles for at least five countries, including for the Congo, Iraq, Gambia, Iran, and Liberia. As a “Co-Champion” on the Recommendation 3A/B – Digital Human Rights – Digital Cooperation Roundtable, in 2020, Access Now leveraged its role to advance provisions addressing shutdowns, leading to the citing of shutdowns as a violation of international human rights law in the U.N. Secretary-General’s Roadmap for digital cooperation.

21. How are governments supporting efforts to end internet shutdowns?

Members of the #KeepItOn coalition have pushed for commitments by governments to fight internet shutdowns. For instance, in 2017, following advocacy efforts by Access Now and the coalition, the Freedom Online Coalition, then comprising 30 governments, declared its commitment to fight shutdowns at Access Now’s RightsCon summit in Brussels. The European Parliament has also denounced shutdowns and advocated for internet freedom globally. Moreover, in response to the internet blackouts in Belarus, some 29 governments including Canada, the United States of America, The Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement condemning the use of partial or complete internet shutdowns in the aftermath of the fraudulent 2020 presidential elections. Countries like Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, and Burkina Faso pledged to ensure open, free, and secure internet access in their countries throughout elections held in 2020.

22. Can you challenge an internet shutdown in court?

Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition are using legal cases to fight internet shutdowns around the world. #KeepItOn coalition members have participated in lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions and courts as plaintiffs, advisers, funders, and amici curiae (or “friends of the court”). Examples include our legal interventions at national and regional courts against shutdowns ordered in CameroonKashmirIndonesia, and Togo.

23. How can I sue my government for denying me access to the internet? How do I start?

Whether or not you can sue your government for denying internet access and whether your suit would be successful depends on many factors. Together with the lawyer who will file your claim, you’ll need to consider things like which court has the authority to hear your case and which legal theory is most likely to succeed. Be safe: some of those filing lawsuits have also suffered reprisals. #KeepItOn coalition members have challenged internet shutdowns using different strategies, ranging from due process claims focused on the details of how a shutdown order was issued to constitutional cases appealing to free expression protections to international legal obligations under treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Members of the #KeepItOn coalition and partners such as the Digital Rights Litigators Network may be able to support you in bringing a case against a shutdown in your country. Contact Peter Micek, General Counsel at Access Now, at [email protected] for more information.