United Nations event to explore ways to stop internet shutdowns

On June 14 in Geneva, Switzerland, Access Now and our co-sponsors will present Digital access, shutdowns, and surveillancePrivate actors and respect for free expression,” a side event at the 35th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The event takes place from 12:00 p.m.- 1:30 p.m. Geneva Time in Room XXIV, Palais des Nations. 

The event will feature David Kaye, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Expression and Opinion, and a panel of experts from global civil society and the technology sector, in a discussion aimed at defining the next steps in the battle to end internet shutdowns, the government practice of deliberately cutting or disrupting access to the internet.

“From Nairobi to the Kashmir Valley, and Aleppo to Geneva, more and more of us are saying, ‘enough.’ This year, we’re seeing authorities in India, Iraq, Syria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, and elsewhere exercise heavy-handed, disproportionate control of the internet, cutting off access for millions of people, during protests, to quell dissent, or even during national exams, ” said Peter Micek, Global Policy and Legal Counsel at Access Now.

“We built these networks to connect, send money to our families, to do business, to share information, and to learn about the world. We’re not going to let governments, or companies forced under their thumbs, shut it off and violate human rights without resistance.”

The key questions Kaye and the panel will explore:

  • Who gets hurt when governments shut down the internet?
  • What responsibilities do private actors have to resist government censorship and surveillance, and ensure a free and open internet?
  • What more must the Human Rights Council do before it can be regarded as a champion of digital rights?

The panelists are:

David Kaye, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression

Gayatri Khandhadai, Association for Progressive Communications (APC)

Julie Owono, Executive Director, Internet Without Borders

Laura Okkonen, Head of Human Rights, Nokia; Chair of the Industry Dialogue

Patrik Hiselius, Senior Adviser on Digital Rights, Telia Company; GNI Board Member


Thomas Hughes, Executive Director, ARTICLE 19

ARTICLE 19’s new policy Getting Connected: Freedom of Expression, Telcos and ISPs will be launched at the event.

Co-sponsors are:

ARTICLE 19, APC, Privacy International, and the governments of Austria, Brazil, Germany, and Sweden.

Background: the United Nations, internet shutdowns, and free expression 

On July 1, 2016, the U.N. Human Rights Council (“HRC”) unequivocally condemned “measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online,” and called on governments worldwide to desist and refrain from such practices (HRC res 32/13).

One year after this significant resolution, in his recently published report to the 35th HRC Session, Kaye writes that he is concerned that governments continue to engage in such practices, whether to frustrate access to information during election campaigns or to provide a shield of secrecy for violent crackdowns on protests. These ongoing shutdowns contradict the human rights commitments that governments have made at the HRC.

As Kaye explains why these shutdowns violate international human rights law, the special rapporteur points out that they are just one of several ways that governments are pressuring private actors such as telecommunications companies and internet service providers, to control, censor, and monitor what we can see and share online.

The report elaborates on how private actors are, for instance, routinely deputized to carry out governments’ unlawful surveillance efforts. There are laws that require ISPs to retain user data and disclose it on request, requirements to limit or weaken encryption, and to enable direct access to networks, often on the basis of spurious or sweeping national security justifications, and without judicial authorization or oversight.

This underscores the close interrelationship between privacy and freedom of expression in the digital age.  Kaye also identifies governments’ failure to protect Net Neutrality, allowing businesses to pursue profit at the expense of equitable access, as a particular threat to economically disadvantaged groups, which may further marginalize them in their access to information and public participation.

Although Kaye emphasizes that governments bear the primary obligation to end these violations, he also stresses that companies such as telcos and ISPs must play their part. They are uniquely situated to resist government censorship and surveillance efforts. Kaye writes that companies should incorporate human rights safeguards by design, resist and challenge government requests that violate human rights, maximize transparency, and ensure remedy, at a minimum, in line with the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

(For more information on HRC 35, see our review of the digital rights issues under discussion.)

About Access Now and the #KeepItOn campaign to end internet shutdowns

Access Now’s mission is to defend and extend the digital rights of users at risk around the world. By combining tech-driven policy, user engagement, and direct technical support, we fight for open and secure communications for all.

Access Now launched the #KeepitOn Coalition, which is comprised of nearly 120 civil society organizations from 51 countries. At RightsCon, Access Now’s annual conference on human rights and technology, activists, technologists, companies, and governments gathered at the #KeepitOn Summit to explore new frontiers and strategies for fighting disruptions. Anyone can join the discussion on fighting internet shutdowns using the hashtag #KeepitOn.