photo credit: Sophie Ngassa
Sophie’s story, which you can read more of in Slate, reveals the tremendous impact that internet shutdowns have on people’s lives. Personal narratives like hers are also an indispensable tool for organizing against disruptions, like the one that took place this past week in Togo, where thousands of people took to the streets to protest against President Faure Gnassingbé, who has been in power since 2005.
As digital rights advocates, we can point to the Brookings Institution’s estimate that government-mandated shutdowns caused $2.4 billion in economic damage between 2015 and 2016, or that the U.N. Human Rights Council has condemned them, unequivocally. Our estimates suggest that Togo’s internet shutdown has inflicted at least $300,000 (U.S.) in daily costs to the country’s economy (per capita GDP is just $578).
But more people may feel compelled to take action when they read about a real person than when they’re asked to ponder facts and figures.
Today we’re launching the Shutdown Stories project to collect the real stories that show the real harm of internet shutdowns. We believe the project will be tremendously helpful when we argue for national, international, and corporate policy to stop shutdowns through our #KeepItOn campaign. Eventually, we hope to share a body of evidence on harm collected with your help and the help of our #KeepItOn partners and researchers.
In collecting these stories, we face two major obstacles: first, you can’t use the internet to share your story if the government has shut it down. Many stories can only be shared after the fact. Second, documenting a shutdown can be challenging. You can’t really take a picture of an internet shutdown, yet stories with photos can be especially powerful. They allow people to grasp the impact of a shutdown in a more visceral way.
So we’re starting the project using two different methods of collecting stories: sharing the personal accounts of shutdowns that have already been published online, and asking those of you who have experienced a shutdown to share your story — including requesting that you share a photo of yourself. Here’s how you can tell us about your story. (Lire en français.)
What we’re learning from the stories we’ve found
We have begun by combing through about 100 articles about internet shutdowns, scouring English-language international news outlets that cover South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. We are excerpting personal narratives and identifying the common themes.
→ Shutdowns isolate people from their families and communities
One of the primary themes we uncovered is social isolation. For instance, Letícia Sanchez, a brand manager for the ethical cosmetics company Lush that partnered with us in the #KeepItOn campaign, shared a story about being disconnected from her community when the Brazilian government ordered WhatsApp blocked nationwide:
“As we are very used to communicating and also working via WhatsApp, it really made our social communication hard… I was particularly angry about it and very shocked, as for me all kinds of digital communication tools are key for our social life and freedom.”
→ Shutdowns destroy economic and educational opportunities
We also identified the common theme of missed opportunity, as described in a post by Arshie Qureshi, a doctoral student, who was cut off from the internet for months on end in Kashmir, India:
“In September, I was supposed to write my exam for PhD admission. With all libraries closed, national newspapers unavailable and internet banned, I had no content to go through for the preparations. Among many questions that I failed to answer was the audience perception of a movie that had just released and I had not even heard of and as expected, I failed to get through the exam.”
→ Shutdowns place people in physical danger
Cutting off access to the internet brings with it physical peril, and people have shared stories about being unable to contact health and emergency services, or getting stuck in a war zone without a way to figure out whether it was safe to head home.
Stories reveal the harm and impact on vulnerable groups
Although we considered organizing stories according to theme, we are instead using a taxonomy that we hope will help us in advocating against shutdowns: 1.) what harm they document, and 2.) which, if any, vulnerable groups are impacted.
→ Showing the harm
The harms we are initially identifying are:
- Disruption of local businesses, as demonstrated in a story from a Cameroonian business owner, Andy:
“If the suspension continues for another, say two months, I will wind up the businesses and terminate the contracts of all the workers. This may sound rather draconian but I’m sorry!”
- Disruption of education, as described by Arshie Qureshi above and by Henok, an Ethiopian PhD student:
“Not having internet in the 21st century is hard, it’s catastrophic! You can’t go and browse lectures on YouTube… Every media, all of them are restricted.”
- Disruption of journalism, as captured in an account by Qazi Zaid, who traveled through an active conflict zone to cover a political leader’s funeral in Kashmir, and was cut off from the internet:
“Journalism seemed like the worst career by now. We kept moving, the phones stopped working and we were into unknown territory.”
- Disruption of grassroots activism, which Malik from the Gambia observed in his community:
“Everyone goes into self censorship, and won’t say anything because you don’t want the repercussions, either to you or to your family.”
- Disruption of healthcare or emergency services, like those provided by Dr. Nishat Fatima, a Pakistani obstetrician/gynecologist whose pregnant patient was unable to contact her during a shutdown:
“When [the shutdown ended] I found that the fetus had died three days earlier. Maybe, if the phone network was working at the time, then I could have sent her to the hospital and treated her, and she would have been a mother now.”
- Disruption of the operations of civil society organizations, as documented in an article quoting Janet Fofang, managing director of Girls in Tech, Cameroon:
“While I worked on parts of the project that required my expertise, my colleagues could hardly do anything and had no research power as their connections were down. On the last day, we lost out on the submissions as we could not catch up with the delays this [shutdown] had caused.”
→ Showing the impact on vulnerable groups
Not all stories relate the experience of vulnerable groups, but those that do are especially effective at demonstrating the injustice of shutdowns. Initially, we are identifying stories which include:
- Women and girls, whom Arshie Qureshi tells us were especially affected by lack of access to social media during persistent shutdowns in Kashmir, India:
“The socialization patterns of women are already restricted in terms of their participation in public life. Social media diminishes the boundaries on such participation and the only window to outside world for many women happens to be social media.”
- Refugees and internally displaced persons, who were put in danger when an aid worker named Nina was unable to call for help as she protected refugee children surrounded by a riot:
“Imagine being in that position when you have to take care of all those people, but you cannot connect with anyone else, and you don’t know where’s a safe area to take them.”
- Cultural, ethnic, and religious minorities, such as the English-speaking minority in French-speaking Cameroon, where the internet was cut off in Anglophone regions in the midst of protests decrying marginalization by the Francophone government. The shutdown only deepened the marginalization, especially from an economic perspective. Otto Akama tells us:
“[The shutdown] has affected us very badly… most banks are down and ATM machines are not working so people don’t have access to cash.”
How we’re collecting fresh stories
Stories that are already published capture only a tiny fraction of people’s experiences with shutdowns, but they helped us design the form we’re using to collect new stories. We also drew inspiration from an online survey that Bytes for All, our partner in the #KeepItOn campaign, created to study the internet shutdown in Pakistan in 2014.
→ Good photos are powerful and scarce
Every story is of great interest to us, but they’re even more effective when people can see who is telling the story. But when the network is down, people can’t share photos online. Taking a photo of a computer screen displaying “You are not connected to the internet,” and later publishing it, may document the shutdown, but it does not illustrate in a compelling way who is being harmed.
That is why our story collection form requests that people sharing a story submit a photo of themselves — helping to put a human face on the story of internet shutdowns.
Our hope is that submissions using this form will allow us to publish a large body of stories accompanied with photos, similar in format to the U.N. Refugee Agency’s Refugee Stories website, and that our advocacy will be stronger for it.
Share your story
As a start to the project, we are launching an English version of our story collection form and casting a wide net. Later, we may create versions of the form customized for people impacted by a shutdown in a particular region, enabling us to publish first-hand accounts of shutdowns within weeks. This may help us spread the word about the shutdown in the global community, and help policymakers better “see” and understand the shutdown’s human impacts.
We’re grateful to each person who shares a personal story of a shutdown, whether it is through our form, their own blog, or with a journalist. We encourage bloggers, human rights defenders, activists, and others fighting shutdowns to tell these stories as well.
If you have a personal story, please share it with us, or if you know someone who has experienced a shutdown, encourage them to do so. The story you submit could help change the world for the better. (Partager en français.)
Over time we will be refining our submission form, translating it, and creating new ways for people to share their stories — including messaging apps and other methods. We want to make it as secure and seamless as possible to get out the word.
About the #KeepitOn campaign
The #KeepitOn campaign consists of 131 organizations from 56 countries that are devoted to fighting internet shutdowns. Since we launched the campaign at RightsCon Silicon Valley in 2016, we’ve seen major victories: the U.N. Human Rights Council condemned internet shutdowns; 30 governments of the Freedom Online Coalition spoke out against shutdowns, as have the GSMA, the Global Network Initiative, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. And, together with local activists, we have helped to end major internet shutdowns in Cameroon and Gambia.