Fighting censorship during the 2018 elections season

Countries around the world are preparing themselves for a heated 2018 election season, and free expression advocates are equally preparing to fight back against the rising tide of election-related censorship.

Social media disruptions follow police violence in Mali

Just this week, Internet Sans Frontieres reported a shutdown of social media platforms in Mali, and no connectivity with public telecommunications operator Malitel. These disruptions follow a violent police crackdown on banned opposition protests calling for transparency and accountability in presidential elections scheduled for July 29. International actors including the European Union and the United Nations have called on Mali’s government to respect freedom of expression ahead of and during the upcoming election.

The people of Mali have been living under a government-imposed state of emergency since a hotel bombing in the capital in 2015, and clashes among ethnic groups as well as Islamist insurgents in the border regions have left many in a state of turmoil. More than twelve candidates will challenge the country’s current leadership, responding to widespread criticism of the government’s failure to address both economic and security challenges.

Internet shutdowns violate human rights wherever they take place, but they are particularly dangerous in times of violence and unrest. People depend on access to the internet to communicate with loved ones and access emergency services. The ability to share and access information and to document human rights abuses or irregularities in the election process are fundamental to a healthy democracy. And disruption of internet services imposes heavy costs on small businesses, exacerbating economic hardship in Mali.

If you are currently in Mali, you can help to identify and report online censorship, network shutdowns, and platform blocks.


Telecom authority allows blocking of opposition websites in Pakistan

Pakistan is also preparing for general elections on July 25. But both direct censorship by government agencies and reported pressure on media to self-censor by military officials interested in the outcome of the elections have raised serious concerns around free expression and access to information ahead of election day.

On June 3, opposition group Awami Workers Party reported its website had been blocked for all viewers in Pakistan. As of June 6, access had been restored by most internet service providers but was still unavailable over certain mobile networks. The “Surf Safely” blocking message that appeared on the site indicates the takedown was ordered by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA).

The reason for the blocking of the website is unclear. The Awami Workers Party, in a letter to the Election Commission of Pakistan, has noted that such blocking violates the fundamental rights of freedom of association and freedom of speech. The Awami Workers Party also noted they have not received any notice regarding the website blocking or the reason for the blocking.

The law for regulation of electronic communications in Pakistan — the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 — provides that the investigative agency can block content if it considers it necessary in the interest of “the glory of Islam or the integrity, security, or defense of Pakistan… public order, decency or morality, … or in relation to … commission of or incitement to an offence…”

These overly broad and vague standards keep the law open to misuse for censorship of critical voices. It is imperative that authorities adhere to narrow standards subject to strict interpretation, along with due process, in cases of restriction to freedom of expression.

With an extensive history of internet shutdowns, content takedowns, and other forms of censorship of independent media and political opposition, it is critical for all to stay vigilant in monitoring the health of communications networks in Pakistan ahead of the upcoming election, and to support those whose voices are being silenced.

Find out how to identify and report online censorship in Pakistan ahead of the general election.


Preparing for what’s to come

In addition to these reports from Mali and Pakistan, Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline has already observed attacks on free expression and access to information in the lead-up to elections earlier in the year, including account hacking of major media outlets in Azerbaijan and denial-of-service attacks against activists and opposition party figures in Malaysia.

From Cambodia to Brazil to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, people will continue working to defend the integrity of their democratic processes throughout this 2018 election season in the face of repression, corruption, and disinformation. And the #KeepItOn coalition — a global network of more than 160 civil society organizations fighting to end internet shutdowns — is at the ready to support those efforts.

We encourage governments to stand for freedom of expression by committing to maintain free and open access to the global internet — in short, to #KeepItOn — during elections. We therefore welcome the promise by a member of Zimbabwe’s cabinet not to interfere with internet connectivity or sanction illicit monitoring of citizens’ private communications during the election period. Government officials in other countries where there is risk of a shutdown or other forms of censorship in this critical period should follow suit, publicly affirming that they will keep the internet on and otherwise safeguard the fundamental right to free expression at all times.

Responding to internet shutdowns and online censorship

If you are experiencing an internet shutdown or are unable to access information online due to some form of censorship, we want to hear from you. Your assistance in documenting these incidents is crucial in strengthening the global fight to defend free expression.

If you are an activist, independent journalist, or civil society actor experiencing censorship of your website or social media accounts, contact the Digital Security Helpline for immediate assistance.

Report internet shutdowns or network disruptions to [email protected] (PGP Key ID: 0xB7A750B1). Where possible, include screenshots of the error screen you receive, information about the content you were trying to access, the type of network on which you observed the disruption, and the name of your internet service provider. This information helps technologists around the world more clearly understand how an internet shutdown is being implemented, in order to better support affected individuals with tools to access the information they need.

Share your story with us. If you have experienced an internet shutdown, including blocking of services like WhatsApp, we encourage you to share your story of how it has impacted your life. Documenting the real-world impact of a shutdown is vitally important for global advocacy, and where possible, we aim to provide a platform for voices that have been silenced.

Run testing on your local network to collect evidence of online censorship. If you are using a network affected by censorship, you can help #KeepitOn members Netblocks and OONI map and measure the latest internet and telecom restrictions. This is important because it helps to establish evidence of human rights violations and limits on free expression the lead-up to elections.

Note that these tests require turning VPNs off and entail potential risks. For example, anyone monitoring your internet activity (e.g. ISP, government, employer) would be able to see that you are running OONI Probe or Netblocks scans. If you decide to run these tests, we would recommend reading more about potential risks, closing all your browser tabs and other applications before turning your VPN off, and turning your VPN back on as soon as the probe tests are complete.

For Netblocks, you can run a scan by clicking on this link. This tool will run a general scan of your network directly from your browser and report the data back to Netblocks for further analysis.

The Open Observatory Network Initiative (OONI) provides a suite of tools to run general network tests for connectivity and content blocking, as well as specific tests for WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Telegram. You can run OONI Probe on Linux, MacOS, or on a Raspberry Pi, or install the OONI probe app on your mobile device. Once you have one of these tools installed, you can also test specific websites for censorship using OONI run.

Combined together with information from others reporting on your network or in your country, Netblocks and OONI can detect disruptions to normal internet traffic due to censorship.