Russia Internet access

#KeepItOn: A1 Telekom Austria Group must resist internet shutdowns and share shutdown requests 

For the attention of Alejandro Plater, CEO, A1 Telekom Austria Group; Thomas Arnoldner, Deputy CEO, A1 Telekom Austria Group; and Daniel Hajj Aboumrad, CEO América Móvil Group

Dear Mr. Alejandro Plater, Thomas Arnoldner, and Daniel Hajj Aboumrad,

We, the undersigned organizations and members of the #KeepItOn coalition — a global network that unites over 300 organisations from 105 countries working to end internet shutdowns globally — urge you to publicly support free, open, and secure internet access for the people of Belarus before, during, and after the parliamentary elections scheduled for February 25, 2024. We also call on you and your majority shareholder, América Móvil Group, to resist and denounce any orders from President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government to shut down the internet. 

Telecommunications companies must respect human rights and provide access to remedy if and when such rights are violated. You should do your utmost to resist any internet shutdown orders in Belarus, to share information about how and why they would be implemented, to report on their impact, and to challenge the legality of such shutdowns in court.

Access to the internet and social media platforms enhance participatory governance, advance inclusiveness and transparency, and enable people to exercise their fundamental human rights in a democratic society, such as discussing election processes and political candidates, and holding governments accountable for their actions. It also underpins journalists, human rights defenders, and election observers’ ability to effectively monitor and report on elections. 

History of internet shutdowns in Belarus

In August 2020, Belarusian people took to the streets to protest the widely disputed election results and ensuing violence. The government responded by shutting down the internet and blocking hundreds of websites, social media, and messaging platforms, including YouTube, WhatsApp, Telegram, Viber, Vkontakte, as well as filter services such as Tor, virtual private networks (VPNs), Apple’s App Store, and Google Play services.  

From August 9-12, the people of Belarus were subjected to a complete three-day internet outage. Belarusian authorities continued shutting down mobile internet and throttling social media for the next 120 days, particularly during scheduled protests on Sundays.

The government continues to block independent and foreign media websites and social media services, including zerkalo.io, kyky.org, mediazona.by, Deutsche Welle. and currenttime.tv, which cannot be accessed in the country without the use of a VPN. 

Internet shutdowns contravene international human rights law 

Internet shutdowns violate fundamental human rights enshrined in national, regional, and international frameworks, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Belarus has ratified. 

The UN Human Rights Committee has emphasized in its General Comment No. 37 that “state parties must not, for example, block or hinder Internet connectivity in relation to peaceful assemblies.” Moreover, the UN Secretary General and other experts have affirmed that, “blanket Internet shutdowns and generic blocking and filtering of services are considered by United Nations human rights mechanisms to be in violation of international human rights law.”  

Telecommunications companies must respect human rights 

Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, telecommunications companies must respect human rights, prevent or mitigate potential harms, and provide remedy for any harms they cause or contribute to. 

Telecommunications and internet service providers (ISPs) operating in Belarus — including A1 Belarus, local subsidiary of A1 Telekom Austria Group, and others — have a responsibility to provide quality, open, and secure access to the internet and to digital communication tools. 

A1 Telekom Austria Group has a large amount of commercial and technological leverage in Belarus, and should use this to prevent, mitigate, or take action against internet shutdowns, and condemn shutdowns if and when they occur.

By following the potential orders to shut down the internet, Telekom Austria risks becoming a servant of the Belarussian government during a moment of political crisis, manifested in a crackdown against political dissidents and protestors, as well as multiple human rights violations. This would also constitute a violation of the OECD Guidelines, which ask companies to abstain from improper involvement in local politics.

Whether in Belarus or elsewhere, internet shutdowns jeopardize human rights and must never become a norm. We encourage businesses in Belarus to integrate the UN Principles and OECD Guidelines when responding to censorship and network disruption requests. 

Our recommendations to A1 Telekom Austria Group:

  • Preserve evidence, and openly communicate about demands from the government of Belarus requesting that you disrupt internet access or pressure to conceal their demands;
  • Publicly disclose details when the internet and related services are disrupted, including information about their status throughout the shutdowns and when they come back online;
  • Coordinate with civil society and peers in the telecommunications sector to jointly push back against government censorship demands, and publish regular transparency reports to safeguard open, secure internet access and deter future shutdown orders;
  • Incorporate mitigating measures against involvement in internet shutdowns within A1 Telekom Austria’s Human Rights Policy;
  • Engage meaningfully with relevant stakeholders and affected communities to establish grievance mechanisms and access to remedy for affected people and communities. 

Please let us know how the #KeepItOn coalition can support you in upholding free, open, secure, inclusive internet access for all people in Belarus.

Yours sincerely, 

Signatories

  • Access Now
  • Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC)
  • Africa Open Data and Internet Research Foundation (AODIRF)
  • Belarusian Association of Journalists
  • Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE)
  • Computech Institute
  • Gambia Press Union (GPU)
  • Human Constanta
  • Internet Protection Society (Russia in exile)
  • Kenyan ICT Action Network (KICTANet)
  • Kijiji Yeetu
  • Life campaign to abolish the death sentence in Kurdistan
  • Miaan Group
  • Office of Civil Freedoms
  • Organization of the Justice Campaign
  • Ubunteam
  • Xnet, Institute for Democratic Digitalisation
  • YODET
  • Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre (YEAC-Nigeria)
  • Zaina Foundation