Human Rights 75 Pledges

Internet shutdowns and the UDHR: why internet access matters for human rights in the digital age

For human rights defenders operating in 2023, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is woefully deficient in an area critical to both their security and their work: digital rights. It does not mention the internet and digital technologies nor private corporations – two forces overwhelming our advocacy and manipulating civic space in innumerable ways. 

Fair enough. The internet’s development began about 20 years after the signing of the UDHR, and the rise of multinational corporations evaded scrutiny by human rights instruments for decades more.

Where the UDHR lacks clarity on “how” and “who” is to ensure our rights, though, it is visionary in defining and expounding on those rights, even in this digital age. By affirming our right to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media, and regardless of frontiers,” its Article 19 so welcomed the rise of the borderless, multimedia internet.

In our work at Access Now, a global organization defending and extending the digital rights of individuals and communities at risk, that’s where our fight lies: protecting access to information and ideas via the open, secure, and interoperable internet. 

In today’s world, protecting internet access is key to upholding fundamental human rights, including the right to the freedoms of opinion and expression, which is enshrined in both Article 19 of the UDHR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Free expression enables the exercise and protection of all other human rights, by facilitating journalism and creating civic space for dialogue and dissent on matters in the public interest. As such, denying a person or entire community access to the internet violates their rights to expression, as well as many other rights. 

Worryingly, denials of internet access through shutdowns have become more popular since the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, when the Egyptian government under Hosni Mubarak hit the internet “kill switch” to quell popular unrest – and with it, the rights and freedoms of millions of people.

The impact of internet shutdowns is particularly grave in situations of armed conflict. Those suffering internet shutdowns lack access to life-saving information, including channels to reach emergency medical services, locate humanitarian aid, and know the latest movements of combatants in their neighborhoods. Family members cannot check on their loved ones, send mobile money, or direct them to safe passage.

Yet internet shutdowns abound. In 2022 alone, governments and other actors disrupted the internet at least 187 times across 35 countries – the most states to hit the kill switch in a single year. (Access Now uses a broader definition of “shutdown” to include throttling and deprecation of connectivity to the point where the internet is effectively unusable.)

As the world celebrates the 75th anniversary of the UDHR, we want to focus attention on the threat of internet shutdowns, and to chart our advocacy path to maximize the United Nations’ reach in defending digital rights in ways that strengthen international law and are rooted in human dignity and the rights affirmed in the UDHR. Of course, the internet does not always serve the interests of the people. Like the practice of law, people develop and use the internet more often to benefit the powerful and privileged than to address injustice or redistribute wealth. But the invention holds great promise for upending established knowledge silos and power structures, and for righting inequities. It has a decent track record of helping marginalized people and communities find each other and form rank, building campaigns and even movements to advocate for their rights. 

Therefore, while internet use must be governed to create guardrails that protect against abuses such as digital harassment of human rights defenders and stalking through tracking and other privacy violations, internet access merits all the protection of a fundamental right. In short, the exercise of human rights in a fragmented, hybrid, and digitized world depends more and more on open, interoperable, affordable, and secure connectivity to the global internet.

So what happens when governments begin to shut down the internet? Currently, not enough – but not for lack of effort. After Egypt’s shutdown, UN experts jumped into action, turning 2011 into a pivotal year for application of the international human rights framework in the digital age. Global experts issued a Joint Declaration, applied international law directly to digital spaces (in General Comment 34), and issued groundbreaking reports.

Civil society has rallied as well. In 2016, Access Now launched the #KeepItOn coalition. Today, #KeepItOn comprises more than 300 organizations from 105 countries around the globe organized to fight internet shutdowns through a variety of creative approaches, including grassroots advocacy, direct policymaker engagement, technical support, and legal intervention. We have had a front row seat into how the international ecosystem has evolved, with many states – albeit mainly Western – now spearheading initiatives at the UN and beyond to condemn internet shutdowns worldwide. 

The obstacles, and the progress made, have crystallized amidst the current Israel and Hamas conflict, where repeated internet shutdowns in Gaza have beset a population already under siege. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) issued a condemnation of the “communication blackout in Gaza,” while International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) officials called out the disruptions for blocking humanitarian access and aid. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights made an unequivocal statement, asserting the threat to human rights and humanitarian access posed by bombing and disruption of telecommunications.

Despite the rhetoric, though, we still see frustration at the highest levels of multilateral policymaking, and painfully little progress on the streets. The UN General Assembly resolution on Gaza did not mention the internet, telecommunications, or electricity. Not until our leaders understand access to information and expression as a fundamental driver of human rights, akin to food, shelter, and medicine, will we bring the foundations of the UDHR firmly into the digital age.

Building on 2022’s UN Human Rights report on internet shutdowns, we see several areas for stakeholders to play a role in fighting internet shutdowns: 

  1. To all states, and in commemoration of the UDHR: Pledge to #KeepItOn and extend internet access universally.
  2. To the tech sector: Work with civil society and policymakers to monitor more nuanced forms of censorship, like “throttling” and downgrading of bandwidth.
  3. To humanitarians: Study shutdowns for their impacts on humanitarian access and assistance to civilians, peace negotiations, and information gathering in conflict environments.
  4. To academics: Study shutdowns in particular situations, like protests and elections; their impacts on climate advocacy and educational and health outcomes; how they obstruct accessibility and inclusion; and where their impacts are gendered.  
  5. To legal experts: Support more strategic litigation efforts at the national, regional, and global levels, including through lawyers’ and judges’ trainings and normative development.

The UDHR may have been drafted long before the internet, but it remains pertinent 75 years later. By taking the above actions and continuing to re-interpret the UDHR based on contemporary developments, we can ensure its central tenets are upheld, in the digital age and beyond.

This essay originally appeared in The Next 25: A Collection of Essays on the Future of Human Rights, published by Article 3, with a slightly different title. We greatly appreciate the opportunity to republish it here.