Update: Mass internet shutdown in Sudan follows days of protest

Update: Since we published the blog below, we have learned more about abuses committed by the Sudanese government before, during, and after the country’s communications network shutdown. According to the Association for Progressive Communications, an international network of open internet advocates, the Sudanese government began censoring journalists the week before the shutdown, and beginning on Sept. 25, the day of the blackout, at least 700 people were arrested, with dozens and possibly hundreds killed by government forces.

In the aftermath of these events, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), a non-profit group that draws attention to the human rights impacts of companies, sent our blog condemning the network disruption and its effect on the human rights of Sudanese users to the four telcos operating in Sudan. Our blog asked the companies to report on their activities relating to the shutdown, and their relevant policies. Only one telco, MTN Sudan, answered BHRRC’s call for a response to our blog.

Last week, we followed this blog with an Open Letter to Sudan Telcos (click here to view in Arabic), which we sent to all four operators. The Open Letter outlines the conflicts in reasoning in the justification Sudanese officials gave for the shutdown, and requests more information about whether and how the telcos were involved. As before, MTN Sudan was the only telco to respond — Zain, Canar Telecom, and Sudatel have not responded to the Open Letter from Access, nor to the request for comment from the BHRRC.

Original Post:

Internet services in Sudan were abruptly shut down today while protests swelled in the capital Khartoum for the third day after fuel subsidies were cut, doubling the price of gas.

Internet monitoring firm Renesys is tracking the blackout, which affected 1300 networks at 12:47 UTC on Sept. 25, at their site, noting that other recent outages affected those same networks. Various outages reportedly affected all Sudanese networks, provided by Zain (whose Sudanese website is not accessible), CanarTelecom, MTN, and Sudani (a brand of Sudatel). CanarTelecom service was restored after three hours. A Renesys official called it “the largest government-directed Internet blackout since Egypt in January 2011.”

Though the government has not claimed responsibility for the shutdown, a security expert at Renesys pointed to a number of factors indicating the government was involved, including the simultaneous failure of three independent networks, which use different terrestrial and underseas cables to connect to the global internet. The shutdown also mirrors one that occurred in Sudan earlier this summer, just before a planned protest.

This evidence combined with the fact that the routes Zain, CanarTelecom, MTN, and Sudani use to connect to the global internet were withdrawn on slightly different schedules, suggests that this was not the act of the government throwing a central “kill switch,” as Syria did last year. Rather this is probably a highly-coordinated move by the Sudanese government that the network operators likely had knowledge of and may have been involved with.

Access believes that any mass shutdown to communications networks immediately violates the fundamental human rights of access to information and freedom of expression and places users at risk. People increasingly depend on the internet – an ‘enabler’ of a wide range of human rights – to communicate with both loved ones and authorities, and public safety is put at extreme risk when users lose access to emergency services.

Under international law, articulated by the UN Human Rights Committee’s General Comment 34, any restriction on fundamental rights must be proportionate to the threat posed, provided for by law, and strictly necessary to achieve a proper public purpose, such as public safety.

However, mass network shutdowns by definition are disproportionate to the threat. They affect all users, putting everyone at risk of isolation. By cutting off users from sources of information, shutdowns increase fear, disorder, and insecurity. Shutdowns are also overly punitive, in that they end up harming those most in need of emergency services and assistance during times of unrest. Shutdowns are likewise inadequate and unnecessary to protect the public, as riots do not end once social media use is forbidden. Rather, it has been documented that even more people protest publicly when they’re no longer able to connect privately. Finally, under the darkness of this communications blackout, the Sudanese government may be emboldened to commit atrocities, with the Sudanese people unable to share evidence of these abuse or seek help.

Policy Guidance to telcos and ISPs

Access issues guidance to telecoms and ISPs so that they may better prevent and mitigate network shutdowns and other rights infringements. The Access Telco Action Plan counsels telcos to have plans in place to identify and respond to orders that may impact human rights. Telcos and ISPs should insist governments follow proper legal process, delivering orders in writing, signed by the official requesting the action, and clearly stating the reason for the request and its legal justification. Other methods to ‘push back’ include contacting other stakeholders, like peer telcos and ISPs, as well as civil society groups and lawmakers, to advocate for user rights.

Companies receiving government requests with potentially harmful effects should expedite those requests, making sure that executives with human rights expertise — often at the Board or Group level — handle them. The company response should be narrowly tailored, interpreting the request in the least harmful way, and implementing it for the shortest duration possible.

For these reasons, Access has repeatedly called upon telcos and ISPs, including those operating in Sudan like MTN, to publicize their human rights policies and transparently assess their adherence to the ethical codes. These plans can also help telcos like Zain, Sudatel, and CanarTelecom respect human rights in their operations.

Those companies who have contributed to the infringement of user rights should immediately take measures to mitigate and remedy the damage. The Access Telco Remedy Plan highlights these steps, including to cease the network interference, notify affected users, and hear their claims through accessible and fair grievance mechanisms. If judicial courts are not viable options for users, companies must still take unilateral and/or multistakeholder measures to comply with their obligation to provide access to remedy, as articulated in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Previous national internet shutdowns

If the Sudanese government did shut down national access to the internet, there are unfortunately precedents for its action.

Myanmar’s government shutdown networks in response to protests over rising fuel costs in 2007, for about a week beginning Sept. 28. More notoriously, on Jan. 27, 2011, the government of Hosni Mubarak ordered Egypt’s main internet and mobile phone providers to “pull the plug” on their services. Egypt’s four main ISPs (Telecom Egypt, Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, and Etisalat Misr) and its three main mobile phone companies (Vodafone Egypt, Mobinil, and Etisalat) all complied.

Call to action

Access views all of these incidents as violations of universal human rights, and an affront to the values of openness, interdependence, and security that underpin the global internet.

We call on Sudanese authorities to lift the ban on communications, and notify users what has occurred and why. Service providers in Sudan must immediately take steps to restore service, whether that requires operational, legal, or multilateral measures, and likewise transparently report on their activities related to the shutdown and their relevant policies. The parent companies of Sudanese subsidiaries in particular must explain and remedy any infringing activities. Anything less would constitute a continuing infringement of human rights.