30 governments step it up to denounce internet shutdowns at RightsCon Brussels

Brussels, Belgium Thirty governments of the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) declared their commitment to fight internet shutdowns in an important new statement issued at RightsCon Brussels 2017. The FOC includes member countries as diverse as France, Tunisia, Ghana, the United States, and Australia.

“This bold statement from the Freedom Online Coalition is an important step in preventing internet shutdowns from becoming the new normal,” said Deji Bryce Olukotun, Senior Global Advocacy Manager at Access Now. “We now have a group of countries who have drawn a firm line in the sand against this human rights violation, and they can hold other governments accountable by setting the right example.”

In the statement (PDF), the FOC expressed “deep concern”, and called “on all governments to end such violations of the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly.” It explained that “disruptions undermine the economic benefits of the Internet and disrupt access to essential services such as health care,” citing two influential studies by the Brookings Institution and the Global Network Initiative, the former of which found that shutdowns had drained $2.4 billion from the global economy.

“Stopping internet shutdowns is a moonshot problem, but there are multiple moons and a thousand trajectories,” Olukotun continued. “The FOC’s statement draws us closer to one of the moons. But there’s much more work to be done to end this violation of human rights in the digital age.”

The FOC statement caps an important month of victories against internet shutdowns. The Internet Society, a global non-profit with 110 chapters on 6 continents, recently joined Access Now’s #KeepitOn campaign to fight internet shutdowns. The regional internet registry AFRINIC also came out strongly against shutdowns, and earlier in the month the Mo Ibrahim Foundation — widely seen as a moral authority on the African continent — condemned the practice.

Nonetheless, there are ongoing internet shutdowns in Cameroon, Bahrain, and Pakistan, and India has already experienced eight disruptions in 2017, according to the Software Freedom Law Centre. Access Now tracked 56 shutdowns in 2016, up from under 20 in 2015. Earlier this week, digital rights groups in Ecuador also reported internet disruptions during its elections, which are still being investigated.

The #KeepitOn Coalition is comprised of nearly 120 civil society organizations from 51 countries. The campaign has succeeded in pressuring the UN Human Rights Council to “unequivocally condemn” internet shutdowns and to spur the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, a regional body, to speak out against intentional disruptions of the internet. In November 2016, #KeepitOn partnered with Lush Cosmetics to launch a special bath product and worldwide action in nearly 1,000 stores in 40 countries, with profits leading to the creation of a Digital Fund to support digital rights activism. India remains one of the most egregious offenders of shutdowns, having lost nearly $1 billion in 2016 as a result. Civil society groups in the country have since launched a campaign called Keepusonline.in to urge state governments to end the practice of shutting down the internet.

Much more work remains to be done in 2017. At RightsCon Brussels, activists, technologists, companies, and governments gathered at the #KeepitOn Summit to explore new frontiers and strategies for fighting disruptions, which we’ll share soon. Meanwhile, you can follow us on Twitter, on Facebook, Instagram, or join the discussion with the hashtag #KeepitOn.