Defending the Web for all: how global champions are fighting to #KeepItOn

Today, as we join the world to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web, we’re remembering an important moment in the battle for access to the internet for all: the launch of the #KeepItOn campaign. This campaign, now a global coalition, started as a way to advance the existing efforts to stop deliberate network disruptions all around the world. It has since become the connective tissue in an ecosystem of collective resistance to censorship.

Together the coalition works to amplify and strengthen efforts to stop shutdowns from Cameroon to India to Venezuela and beyond. Our goal is to keep people connected to the internet and able to exercise their fundamental human rights, including the right to access information and express themselves, whether online or off.

The launch of #KeepItOn

The #KeepItOn campaign kicked off in 2016, representing 70 organizations, including Access Now, committed to fighting shutdowns at every level that they are authorized, ordered, or implemented. Our aim, then and now, is to show how this practice hurts everyone: blocking emergency services, putting people in danger, attacking human rights, and draining economies. We wanted to work with governments, telcos, tech companies, and the public to uncover pathways and offer tools for pushing back for access to the free and open internet for all.

A key moment for the campaign came at RightsCon Silicon Valley in 2016, when a group of stakeholders from around the world came together to agree on a formal definition for an  “internet shutdown.” This helped us formalize a method of counting and tracking disruptions around the world, work that had previously been taking place without a common, standardized approach to enable a global view of the problem.

The STOP Project (Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project) grew out of that effort, providing a way to systematically document shutdowns no matter where they take place. It works by collating data from organizations that track disruptions and by including our own monitoring of shutdowns as we respond to alerts via the hashtag #KeepItOn. We also ask victims of these attacks on human rights to share their stories through the #KeepItOn website. This enables us to better document the real harm of shutdowns to real people, and to bring that evidence to international forums such as the United Nations Human Rights Council to push for change.

#KeepItOn champions are continuously innovating

We’re humbled by the continuous growth and evolution of the #KeepItOn coalition. Starting in 2016 with 70 organizations from five continents, the coalition now represents more than 187 partners from 66 countries (as of March 2019).

Who we are and how we’re fighting

The numbers tell only a small part of the story. The #KeepItOn coalition is anchored and sustained by its partner organizations, which are comprised of grassroots, national, and international civil society organizations. These organizations each work on a piece of the pushback puzzle. Our work includes: tracking shutdowns; collecting and documenting evidence; engaging in advocacy targeted to governments, ISPs, tech companies, or others that actually carry out shutdowns; measuring the economic damage of shutdowns; providing advocacy tools to those directly impacted; offering victims direct technical assistance; preparing and filing legal challenges to shutdowns; gathering and presenting information on shutdowns in international forums; educating journalists, lawmakers, and the public about the dangers of shutdowns…and the list goes on.

Highlights and the road ahead

We couldn’t possibly list every achievement of this ecosystem of resistance, but we can celebrate some of the key highlights:

2016: Ghana pledged not to shut down social media during its elections. After we launched our partnership with Lush Cosmetics, the coalition was able to reach more than 12 million people and collect more than 45,000 signatures urging governments worldwide to #KeepItOn. Human rights experts at the United Nations issued a declaration condemning internet shutdowns and recognizing human rights online, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, a regional body,  adopted a resolution on the right to freedom of information and expression on the internet in Africa, noting its concerns about disruptions. The Global Network Initiative (GNI) and the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue also took a stand  against shutdowns, acknowledging the importance of keeping the internet open, and providing the #KeepItOn movement with valuable partners.

2017: Cameroon lifted a 94-day internet shutdown in the Anglophone regions of the country. As part of RightsCon Brussels, 30 governments of the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) united in a bold statement to denounce internet shutdowns, allowing them to hold other governments accountable for human rights violations and lead by example. We soft-launched the WOW database as a way to ensure telco accountability.

2018: The High Court in Pakistan made a strong judgment against shutdowns, finding that shutting down mobile networks is illegal under most circumstances. NetBlocks and the Internet Society launched the Cost of Shutdown Tool (COST), enabling people to quickly estimate the negative economic impact of a shutdown in their country.

2019: Amidst an outbreak of shutdowns in Africa, a court in Zimbabwe ruled that a government order to shut down the internet was illegal and ended the shutdown. In Uganda, coalition member Unwanted Witness Uganda will soon see its case challenging a shutdown reviewed, which could have a positive impact on future shutdowns in Africa. #KeepItOn partners continue to develop and hone tools for gathering technical evidence that a shutdown is taking place, including more targeted approaches such as app blocking and censorship, which, while more “subtle,” greatly impact access to information and the freedom of expression.

In only three years, #KeepItOn has helped to raise the profile of internet shutdowns as a global human rights issue, and we’re starting to have impact. But there is much more work to do, and we need #KeepItOn more than ever. The number of shutdowns continues to rise sharply, with a documented 28 shutdowns since the beginning of the year alone.

As we map out the times when there is a stronger potential for shutdowns, such as during elections, we are arming people with information to safeguard their access to information and free expression, including tools for circumvention. Our Digital Security Helpline is providing advice on trusted VPNs, for instance, so people can counter censorship, get access to blocked websites, and provide crucial data about the state of the internet in their region. But that’s not enough.

We need your help

As the Web turns 30, we’re hoping you join us to make the #KeepItOn coalition stronger and more impactful. If you’re part of an organization that wants to help defend access to the free and open internet, reach out to us at berhan @ accessnow.org. Anyone can use the materials on our #KeepItOn website for advocacy and push-back, and we’re happy to answer any questions you may have.

Finally, you can stay tuned to the conversation by following us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, and you can participate by using the hashtag #KeepitOn