From crisis to conflict, we must defend digital rights when people need them most

Next month marks 14 years since a defining moment in the digital rights movement: the 2009 Iranian election. This was the event that showed just how important free and open access to the internet could be for allowing civil society to speak truth to power in moments of crisis, but also how authoritarian governments could, and would, wield an iron fist over the digital sphere in order to quash protest and silence dissent. 

Access Now was born in the eye of this storm, beginning life as an emergency response team of technologists working to keep people connected and their communications shielded from authoritarian eyes. Since then however, the global threat to digital rights has only grown, moving from isolated incidents, to an ongoing and insidious trend of total digital authoritarianism wielded as a weapon of control in both peace and wartime – and our mission to defend and extend digital rights has expanded accordingly. 

It is in this context that we are attending the Stockholm Internet Forum this week, focused this year on the “Role of the internet and ICTs during crises, conflicts, and disasters.” Crisis, conflict, and disaster are three separate, but interlinked, instances when the effect of curtailing digital rights, or weaponizing technology, is felt most intensely by civilians– even those living under similar conditions the rest of the time. 

From the unchecked spread of fake news and disinformation putting lives at risk, to companies pulling out of conflict situations without warning or in response to sanctions (leaving people cut off from essential online services), the impact for people on the ground when digital rights are infringed in times of war, conflict, and crisis is immediate, concrete, and sometimes dire. There are three particular areas that warrant ongoing advocacy and international alignment. 

1. Content governance: a crisis approach 

Open and secure internet access is a lifeline for civilians living in warzones or situations of active conflict. Social media platforms allow people to document human rights violations, to share real-time security updates and information with each other, to crowdsource humanitarian assistance, and to tell the world about what is happening on the ground. But by the same token, authorities in conflict zones or warring parties are quick to use the same tools to spread disinformation, incite violence, or attack and surveil anyone they see as a threat, such as journalists or pro-democracy activists. 

In such situations, social media platforms have a responsibility to protect human rights and prevent the misuse of their systems to enable human rights violations. Unfortunately, this has not been the case historically. From conflicts in Ethiopia and Syria, to Israel/Palestine and Myanmar, we have repeatedly seen social media companies failing in their duty of care – with the effects disproportionately impacting already-marginalized communities. 

To this end, Access Now and our partner organizations have launched a Declaration of principles for content and platform governance in times of crisis, setting out recommendations for companies to respond appropriately to crises and meet their obligations and responsibilities under international human rights law. 

2. Censorship, shutdowns, and surveillance in times of conflict 

Cyberwarfare is now as much a part of military strategy as troop movements and ammunition provision, as seen in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. Whether efforts are focused on damaging essential internet infrastructure to hamper communication, spreading disinformation and propaganda to lower morale, spying on dissenters, or covering up violations of human rights and international law committed by military forces, digital technologies now play an essential role in modern warfare, as both targets and as tools. 

Sadly, this trend isn’t new, even if Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine catapulted it into the public consciousness. The two-year bloody civil war in the Ethiopian region of Tigray was accompanied by a long-running internet shutdown imposed by authorities to cut off the population and cover up human rights atrocities. After Myanmar’s military seized power in 2021’s violent coup, a crackdown on any and all dissent, both offline and online, swiftly followed, and today the junta’s “digital dictatorship” remains relentless in its efforts to crush what remains of rights to privacy, freedom of expression and association, access to information, and security. And just last week, Access Now and our partners published an investigation into the hacking of civil society victims in Armenia with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware – the first documented evidence of the use of Pegasus spyware in an international war context.

In this context, technology companies operating in situations of conflict must pay close attention not to infringe human rights, either through the misuse of their products and services, or via their well-intentioned but sometimes overly-hasty moves to comply with international sanctions. 

3. Supporting those who stand up to power, wherever and whenever needed 

The good news is, as much as authoritarian governments and warring parties abuse the internet as a weapon of war and control, civil society is staying one step ahead, finding increasingly creative workarounds to stay connected and heard in the face of online restrictions. Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline – the natural evolution of where we started 14 years ago – provides 24/7, rapid-response support in nine languages to keep at-risk individuals and organizations safe online. 

Since its creation a decade ago, the Helpline has dealt with well over 15,000 cases of civil society organizations, journalists, and human rights defenders being targeted or blocked online, and sadly we continue to consistently see cases spiking during active conflict or regions in crisis. Alongside our international advocacy efforts on the topics mentioned above, this direct, real-time work is core to achieving our mission of safeguarding aimed at protecting people’s digital rights in times of both war and peace, and will remain so for decades to come.

As we head to the Stockholm Internet Forum, we commend the Swedish government for recognizing and responding to the increasingly co-dependent relationship between war and digital technologies. We hope that our work on principles for content and platform governance in times of crisis; recommendations for companies entering or exiting from conflict situations; Helpline support for civil society caught in the crossfire; and ongoing efforts to document digital rights violations, will be of use in this context.