EU Ukraine

What they did in the shadows: Internet shutdowns and atrocities in Ukraine

Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is first and foremost a story of violence and abuse against the civilian population. But it is also a tragic testimony to the dangers of deliberate internet shutdowns in times of crisis. In 2022, at least 12 of Russia’s 22 shutdowns targeting Ukraine coincided with documented human rights abuses. Today, as we approach two years since the full-scale invasion, we document the suffering that has been inflicted on people in Ukraine, and explore the role that network disruptions continue to play in compounding danger and harm to the most vulnerable people.

How we got here

On February 24, 2022, one of the first acts of war Russia perpetrated was a cyberattack, launched right before Russian troops entered Ukrainian territory. This attack disabled the equipment used to connect to Viasat’s satellite broadband internet network. Cutting internet access impacted the civilian population and disabled the communications infrastructure in Ukraine and other countries across Europe.

After Russian troops poured across the border, the physical and digital battlefield became one

Struggling to encircle Kyiv, Russian troops went from house to house hunting for smartphones, laptops, and “any other device that could be used to communicate” what was happening on the ground. Using a smartphone in areas controlled by the Russian forces, such as in Bucha or Irpin in the Kyiv oblast, could be interpreted by the invading troops as the act of an informant, putting civilians trying to communicate in mortal danger. 

Since they were unable to stop the flow of information entirely, Russian invaders began to target 4G transmission units, even though this meant they had to give up their own encrypted communications system, which depended on the same infrastructure.

Russian troops proceeded to disconnect people in East and South-East Ukraine and bring violence into their communities. In Mariupol, for example, Russian forces rapidly flattened connectivity infrastructure as part of their indiscriminate, relentless bombing campaign harming civilians.

This pattern continued in other Ukrainian cities. Based on the #KeepItOn coalition’s documentation of shutdowns in Ukraine, we can conclude that internet shutdowns in Bucha and Irpin, as well as in Mariupol, coincided with Russian occupation and episodes of extreme violence. 

Of course, this series of shutdowns was only the first of many to come. Deliberate shutdowns and interferences with civilian internet and telecommunications networks continue to this day. They are plunging millions into darkness and making them even more vulnerable to the ravages of war.

What happens now

Access Now has long raised the alarm about Russia’s use of internet shutdowns  as a means of warfare and as part of military strategy. Now the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) are investigating the atrocities in Ukraine. As the courts carry out their work, we’ve published a legal explainer, Internet and telecommunications shutdowns in the assessment of international crimes, to shed light on the connection between internet and telecommunications shutdowns and the legal assessment of crimes against humanity. In our brief, we recall that in 2011, the ICC already considered disruptions of internet and telecommunications services to be evidence of a state policy in its assessment of crimes against humanity. We believe telecommunications and internet shutdowns  should therefore be properly and duly assessed in the determination of these crimes.

Our recommendations

It is past time that all parties responsible for shutting down the internet are held accountable. Stakeholders around the world must work together to stop the weaponization of internet shutdowns and telecommunication networks, and to prevent further suffering and atrocities.

We call on members of the international community to:

We urge UN bodies and institutions to:

  • Ensure that the UN Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine includes in its upcoming March 2024 report adequate information on digital rights violations, including internet shutdowns, censorship, and surveillance;
  • Provide technical resources, support, and assistance in rebuilding communications infrastructure on Ukrainian territory, as well as in ensuring the supply of telecommunications equipment, through bodies like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC); and
  • Ensure that the ICC and other relevant courts consider the role of internet shutdowns and other digital rights violations in the investigation of international crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine.

We urge telecommunication companies, businesses, and ISPs to:

  • Address internet shutdowns in their human rights policies by anticipating risks through due diligence processes and by adopting mitigation and transparency measures; 
  • Explore all lawful measures to challenge the implementation of disruptions, and ensure the maximum level of transparency in the way they manage such events;
  • Include in their public human rights policy statement their commitment to preventing and mitigating adverse human rights impacts in the context of internet shutdowns, and establish operational policies and procedures in order to be adequately prepared for responding to shutdown requests even in high pressure situations;
  • Preserve and facilitate the transmission of crucial evidence of potential human rights violations, including any attacks impacting personnel; and
  • Comply with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and OECD Guidelines to ensure they are not causing or contributing to human rights violations when responding to requests to shut down the internet.

We urge tech companies to:

We encourage civil society to:

  • Continue to collaborate in investigations, including through witness and victim support, and digital evidence collection and preservation, and to include the digital dimension of harm when documenting human rights violations;
  • Protect themselves and their community by reaching out to the Digital Security Helpline for direct assistance with digital safety or circumventing shutdowns; and
  • Consider sharing their shutdown impact story with our #KeepItOn coalition, to strengthen advocacy against shutdowns.