Felicia Anthonio: The Internet shut­down is final­ly over. The con­nec­tion has been restored. The courts ruled that the shut­down is unlaw­ful, uncon­sti­tu­tion­al, and a vio­la­tion of fun­da­men­tal human rights. The gov­ern­ment had no choice but to reluc­tant­ly lift the Internet black­out. But the kill switch mech­a­nisms remain in place, and the invis­i­ble hand of the gov­ern­ment is always hov­er­ing over it. You know you haven’t seen the last of the kill switch. But per­haps, because of the court’s order and inter­na­tion­al denounce­ments, they won’t shut down the Internet so eas­i­ly next time. Perhaps when they do, the out­cry and action against it will be swifter, and more condemning.

Welcome to Kill Switch, a pod­cast series brought to you by Access Now, the KeepItOn coali­tion, co-sponsored by Internews, and pro­duced by Volume. I am your host Felicia Anthonio. 

This is the last episode in our series. Over the course of five episodes, we have been tak­ing a look at the trou­bling rise of government-created Internet shut­downs and heard from activists, jour­nal­ists, start­up founders, and tech­nol­o­gy experts from around the world tell their sto­ries. We have spo­ken to peo­ple suf­fer­ing through, sur­viv­ing, and fight­ing against Internet shut­downs all the way from rur­al Pakistan to the high court of Sudan. 

Today, we are wrap­ping up this series with our final episode, in which we look toward the future. Will Internet shut­downs con­tin­ue to spread to even more coun­ties across the world? Or can we do some­thing to stop it? 

Julie Owono is the exec­u­tive direc­tor of dig­i­tal rights organ­i­sa­tion Internet Sans Frontières.

Julie Owono: Internet Sans Frontières, Internet Without Borders, is a Paris-based NGO work­ing on dig­i­tal rights doing advo­ca­cy around them, and specif­i­cal­ly free­dom of expres­sion, pri­va­cy, and access to the Internet itself.

Anthonio: When Internet Sans Frontières start­ed in Paris, it was rel­a­tive­ly small. But since 2007, it has grown to be rep­re­sent­ed in a grow­ing num­ber of coun­tries across Africa, Latin America, as well as the US

Owono: I joined the orga­ni­za­tion in 2010 and decid­ed that you know, it should go a bit beyond the French bor­ders, not only have French activists sound the alert on what’s hap­pen­ing but also you know, being there as well, being in those parts of the world. So I decid­ed to devel­op the orga­ni­za­tion in Africa—I was the head of Africa desk at the time—and decid­ed to deep­en our work with orga­ni­za­tions there, with activists there, even with staff there.

Anthonio: This was an impor­tant shift for the orga­ni­za­tion, but also for the inter­na­tion­al fight against Internet shutdowns.

Owono: I’m real­ly proud of the work we did, hon­est­ly. In the ten years that I spent at the Africa desk, we strong­ly con­tributed to an awak­en­ing on the issues of dig­i­tal rights on the con­ti­nent, espe­cial­ly in West and Central Africa. And we even you know, cre­at­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple there to advo­cate for their right to have plat­forms to do so, to be vis­i­ble and— Yeah, that— I’m real­ly proud of that work.

Anthonio: Internet Sans Frontières is a mem­ber of the Keep It on coali­tion and has col­lab­o­rat­ed with Access Now on many occasions.

Owono: I do think that now we’re one of the lead­ing actors, real­ly. But it’s real­ly thanks to the work not only of the inter­nal­iza­tion, but real­ly of all the peo­ple, all the oth­er orga­ni­za­tions who have worked with us and grav­i­tat­ed around all the issues that we raise.

Anthonio: But growth of an activist orga­ni­za­tion like this is a bit­ter­sweet affair.

Owono: If our work and the work of oth­er orga­ni­za­tions like ours is more vis­i­ble, it means that peo­ple are more aware of the impor­tance of mak­ing sure dig­i­tal rights are defend­ed and are cen­tral in the con­ver­sa­tion. But obvi­ous­ly it comes with the corol­lary idea that if peo­ple are more aware of their rights, it’s prob­a­bly also because these rights are being more and more infringed upon by dif­fer­ent sets of actors.

Anthonio: Internet Sans Frontières, amongst its advo­ca­cy and lit­i­ga­tion activ­i­ties, also works with gov­ern­ments on a pol­i­cy­mak­ing front. 

Owono: We do a lot of pol­i­cy work. What we under­stood is that many gov­ern­ments shut down the Internet most­ly because they think they do not have a choice when they’re fac­ing a threat. 

Anthonio: Governments jump to hit the kill switch for var­i­ous rea­sons, usu­al­ly con­nect­ed in one way or anoth­er to sup­posed issues of nation­al secu­ri­ty. Julie works to edu­cate gov­ern­ments about these kinds of real and per­ceived threats, as well as alter­na­tives to Internet shutdowns.

Owono: Until gov­ern­ments do not address the under­ly­ing issues they will need to shut down every day. They can do that. But if they shut­down every day and we see that very well, they’re going to cause fur­ther risks for the coun­tries. When you shut down Internet your coun­try is los­ing mon­ey. And when your coun­try’s los­ing mon­ey, peo­ple do not make a liv­ing. And when peo­ple do not make a liv­ing, that’s the best con­di­tion for insta­bil­i­ty. It’s not me mak­ing this up. It’s been researched. It’s been proved. So what we’re telling gov­ern­ments is that this is not a solu­tion for you. It might work, to some extent, on the day you imple­ment it. But ulti­mate­ly, in a month, in a year, you will see the con­se­quences that will last much longer than the solu­tion that you thought you imple­ment­ed in the first place.

Anthonio: But to get gov­ern­ments to this point requires con­cert­ed efforts from a coali­tion of stake­hold­ers. The gov­ern­ments need to be coaxed to the water like a hes­i­tant horse. For Julie, the land­mark Bring Back our Internet cam­paign they led in Cameroon dur­ing the 2016 shut­down has become a good exam­ple of how to do this.

Owono: The Bring Back our Internet cam­paign was a glob­al cam­paign ask­ing the Cameroonian gov­ern­ment to restore Internet access to what are now called the Anglophone regions of Cameroon. 

Anthonio: We talked about the cir­cum­stances around this shut­down in episode 3 of Kill Switch, when Churchill the start­up entre­pre­neur shared his expe­ri­ence with us.

Owono: This cam­paign was a mix of not only alert­ing the author­i­ties of the coun­tries on the dis­pro­por­tion­al­i­ty of the shut­down, basi­cal­ly on the ille­gal­i­ty of the shut­down. But we also mixed that with…and also the issue of eco­nom­ic impact. International media aware­ness. It was I would say one of the first exam­ple of orga­ni­za­tion from dif­fer­ent coun­tries in the world, in the African region in par­tic­u­lar, who came togeth­er writ­ing let­ters, writ­ing op-eds, writ­ing arti­cles, tweet­ing, and mak­ing sure that in the end the gov­ern­ment changes its mind on the Internet shutdown.

Anthonio: Access Now also joined the fight, lend­ing our voice and resources to the con­cert­ed and coor­di­nat­ed fight against the shutdown.

Owono: I think that a mix of all this, and the sus­tained, again, inter­na­tion­al pres­sure, all these ele­ments, led to the suc­cess­ful end of the Internet shut­down. And to date, I would say that Cameroon has not done anoth­er shut­down in the extent that it did in 2017. At Internet Sans Frontières we’re real­ly hap­py that we raised the aware­ness of the gov­ern­ment on the total inef­fi­cien­cy of doing Internet shutdowns.

Anthonio: This was an impor­tant cam­paign not only for Cameroon but for the fight against Internet shut­downs around the world.

Owono: And what I think was also land­mark in that case is that we actu­al­ly test­ed so many of the tac­tics that have lat­er on become the new nor­mal in the advo­ca­cy against Internet shut­downs. I remem­ber for instance when we decid­ed to use the method­ol­o­gy to cal­cu­late the cost of the Internet shut­down. I remem­ber pre­cise­ly doing that with my cal­cu­la­tor and…at the time we did­n’t have an algorithm. 

Anthonio: Internet Sans Frontières and the inter­na­tion­al fight against shut­downs have come a long way since then.

Owono: As I was talk­ing about pol­i­cy work with gov­ern­ments, we did that in Cameroon in 2018 before the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. There was an elec­tion in October 2018 and in September, Internet Sans Frontières along with partners—Access Now, Paradigm Initiative, also pri­vate companies—Facebook, Google, and others—we orga­nized a big con­fer­ence con­ven­ing the gov­ern­ment, civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions, and many oth­er publics to dis­cuss the elec­tion and the impor­tance of not shut­ting down the Internet. Yeah, for us this was a proof that keep­ing inter­na­tion­al pres­sure and also mak­ing sure to edu­cate the gov­ern­ment are very good exam­ples that should be repli­cat­ed, mak­ing sure as much as pos­si­ble that gov­ern­ments do not resort to this rad­i­cal tac­tic of shut­ting down the Internet.

Anthonio: But despite the suc­cess of cer­tain tac­tics in Cameroon, each coun­try and each gov­ern­ment presents unique challenges.

Owono: It’s not the same when you try to talk to the neigh­bor­ing coun­try, Chad, where we have been doing a lot of work in the recent years on this issue of Internet shut­downs. We have suc­cess­ful­ly obtained the return of con­nec­tiv­i­ty at sev­er­al occa­sions after sev­er­al cam­paigns we did in 2017, 2019. But now again WhatsApp is being cen­sored again, is being blocked. And we’re tak­ing the bat­tle to anoth­er lev­el, to the African union lev­el, hop­ing that yes, this time the gov­ern­ment will hear our call and hear the African Union call.

Anthonio: The world is chang­ing, part­ly due to the Internet. Countries are not as iso­lat­ed as they once were. Citizens are not as easy to silence. And there are more avenues of inter­na­tion­al coordination. 

Owono: Yeah, some gov­ern­ments are more resis­tant to inter­na­tion­al pres­sure, but they nev­er­the­less pay atten­tion. It’s hard. It’s hard­er with some gov­ern­ments, def­i­nite­ly. But yes, they do notice. Because we live in an age of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I mean peo­ple inter­act with each oth­er. People in Iran or else­where see what cit­i­zens else­where have access to and they also want to have access to that. I mean, this free­dom of expres­sion, that’s the only thing that humans have left when they have noth­ing. The abil­i­ty to speak, to cre­ate, to think, to form opin­ions. Even in China, which is one of the soci­eties that is the most closed. Even there there have been expres­sions of dis­agree­ment, dis­con­tent. So, for me it’s proof that even in the most repres­sive regimes, they do pay atten­tion. Because we live in an age where every­body in the world is pay­ing atten­tion to what you’re doing to your population.

Anthonio: In a lot of coun­tries where shut­downs have been imple­ment­ed, the pri­vate sec­tor is intri­cate­ly involved. After all, it is the Internet ser­vice providers who main­tain the phys­i­cal switch­es that can turn the Internet off for their users. We heard in episode 2 how Abdelazim al-Hassan took one of Sudan’s biggest tele­com com­pa­nies to court and got his Internet rein­stat­ed dur­ing the 2019 nation­wide Internet shut­down inci­dent. We were lucky enough to talk to Mr. Mohammed Sharief of the Zain group to hear anoth­er side of the sto­ry. It is key to know that Zain as a com­pa­ny is a sig­nif­i­cant role-player in the coun­try, and is his­tor­i­cal­ly linked to the birth of the Sudanese mobile indus­try. And in Africa, mobile con­nec­tiv­i­ty has also become syn­ony­mous with Internet connectivity.

Mohammed Sharief: Internet ser­vices start­ed since 2003. And then the 3G license, acquired in 2007. 4G license acquired in 2016. So it’s a kind of… You can say Sudatel and Zain are the two who are [indis­tinct phrase] who have intro­duced the Internet to the Sudanese community.

Anthonio: Since then, Internet access has become cen­tral to Sudanese life.

Sharief: People can afford cut off elec­tric­i­ty, or cut off water, but they can­not afford the Internet cut off. And it’s not just for chat­ting, or Facebook, or Instagram. It actu­al­ly now is becom­ing an essen­tial tool for people—and espe­cial­ly coun­tries like Sudan, it’s becom­ing a tool that is very impor­tant and sig­nif­i­cant for peo­ple to per­form their busi­ness­es or to get even their dai­ly wages.

Anthonio: But if the Internet is so cru­cial, how could Zain cut off their clients dur­ing the 2019 nation­wide Internet shut­down? As Mohammed explains, it is nev­er quite as sim­ple as it seems.

Sharief: So, we got the order from the TPRA to shut down the Internet. It was just a tough order, just shut it down and…we got you could say threats that if you don’t respond quick­ly to the order, then a lot of things would not be okay for the com­pa­ny as a busi­ness in Sudan as well.

Anthonio: In episode 2 of Kill Switch, we heard how pres­i­dent Omar al-Bashir’s mil­i­tary gen­er­als oust­ed him in a coup d’é­tat. But instead of trans­fer­ring pow­er to the peo­ple, the mili­tia gov­ern­ment respond­ed to ongo­ing protests with a mas­sacre in which more than a hun­dred peo­ple were killed and many more injured.

Sharief: To min­i­mize the effect, to min­i­mize the anger, this is why I think he ordered the shut­down of the Internet by force. 

Anthonio: Mohammed here refers to Hemetti, the leader of the mil­i­tary coun­cil and de fac­to leader Sudan at the time.

When Abdelazim el-Hassan took Zain to court to get his mobile Internet rein­stat­ed, regard­ing this court case Mr. Mohammed Sharif dis­put­ed the par­tic­u­lars of the case as report­ed in the press and as told by al-Hassan’s daugh­ter in episode 2 of Kill Switch, as well as whether the case had any­thing to do with the shut­down even­tu­al­ly being lifted.

Sharief: We did it, we shut it down for almost two months. And we con­duct­ed a lot of meet­ings with the mil­i­tary coun­cil as well. And I think those kind of meet­ings helped a lot in short­en­ing the peri­od of the shut­down, to make it two months only.

Anthonio: Is it bet­ter to make a prin­ci­pled stand and go out of busi­ness, or try to work from the inside? Mohammed paints a pic­ture of what would most like­ly have hap­pened had they tried to resist.

Sharief: At that time the tran­si­tion­al mil­i­tary coun­cil was very tough. I think they could have come and con­trolled the head­quar­ters and put their peo­ple and, and even if they have tech­ni­cal peo­ple they would have con­trolled the switch­es and they call to the Internet routers and shut it down.

Anthonio: It is here where the ques­tion of account­abil­i­ty and respon­si­bil­i­ty becomes less black and white. The one sil­ver lin­ing to Zain’s adher­ence to the gov­ern­ment shut­down order is that they believe they are now in an ingra­ti­at­ed posi­tion to argue against future Internet shutdowns.

Sharief: We have talked a lot with the reg­u­la­to­ry author­i­ty, with the gov­ern­ment, about the impor­tance of Internet and the insignif­i­cance of shut­downs in terms of to achieve their goals of stability.

Anthonio: Whether this is sim­ply lip ser­vice, or if Zain will be able to help pre­vent future shut­downs in Sudan, is yet to be seen. Towards the west, on the oth­er side of the African con­ti­nent, we find Derek Laryea from Ghana’s Chamber of Telecommunication. 

Derek Barnabas Laryea: I work with the Ghana Chamber of Telecommunications, which is an indus­try asso­ci­a­tion and a pri­vate ini­tia­tive of multi­na­tion­al mobile net­work oper­a­tors here in Ghana.

Anthonio: As in Sudan, mobile Internet access has become cen­tral to the lives of Ghanaians.

Laryea: There’s a huge trans­for­ma­tion with regards to Internet access, and a lot of it is com­ing from mobile broad­band con­nec­tiv­i­ty by virtue of the lib­er­al­iza­tion of the mar­ket that brought in a lot of the mobile oper­a­tors. In sim­ple terms, what Internet access does, or the role it plays in the lives of Ghanaians, is that it pro­vides dig­i­tal inclu­sion, ie. dig­i­tal inclu­sion for any­one lis­ten­ing is basi­cal­ly access to infor­ma­tion, com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­o­gy. It dig­i­tizes our peo­ple; it includes them. And access to ICTs fur­ther cre­ates what I call a dig­i­tal econ­o­my. And a dig­i­tal econ­o­my is where we say every per­son can the­o­ret­i­cal­ly con­nect to any­body with­in any geog­ra­phy with the same kind of access, obtain and gen­er­ate knowl­edge, or engage in com­mer­cial or social activ­i­ty. Digital inclu­sion kin­da like, it infus­es every­thing with­in the econ­o­my or with­in the state.

Anthonio: Unlike Zain in Sudan strain­ing under the author­i­tar­i­an rule of suc­ces­sive Sudanese gov­ern­ments and gov­ern­ing coun­cils, the Chamber of Telecommunication in Ghana is able to work with their gov­ern­ment with rel­a­tive ease to ensure and enshrine dig­i­tal rights in the country.

Laryea: In mar­kets where there’s rule of law, there’s that open­ness, there’s that trans­paren­cy to be able to engage gov­ern­ments. We believe in the rule of law, so dig­i­tal rights, it forms part of that legal frame­work that [imbibes?] our con­sti­tu­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly also at a time where most gov­ern­ments of the world have com­mit­ted to lever­ag­ing the pow­er of the Internet and infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies in reach­ing the UN goals of sus­tain­able development.

Anthonio: But for my own coun­try Ghana to become an exam­ple in the region as well as on the con­ti­nent was not pos­si­ble with­out a fight. The gov­ern­ment of Ghana has expe­ri­enced sim­i­lar polit­i­cal and social cir­cum­stances that have led region­al neigh­bors such as Liberia, Togo, Cameroon, and oth­ers to flip the kill switch.

Laryea: Four years ago when we were going to have our nation­al elec­tions, there was so much…there was so much dra­ma on social media. So much dra­ma on the Internet. People were writ­ing sto­ries, writ­ing blogs, talk­ing to gov­ern­ment. Now, dur­ing the head of the 2016 elec­tion, there were rumors. In fact there were some snip­pets of con­ver­sa­tion that our inspec­tor gen­er­al of police had indi­cat­ed at a ses­sion or a gath­er­ing that they were look­ing into shut­ting down access to the Internet, par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing the day of the election. 

Anthonio: As more and more coun­tries like Sudan and Ethiopia use the kill switch, it starts becom­ing an accept­ed way of exer­cis­ing polit­i­cal authority.

Laryea: The then-president, John Mahama, came out to state that the Internet won’t be shut down on the day of the elec­tion. And that kin­da also imme­di­ate­ly calmed ten­sions down a bit. 

Anthonio: Derek con­tin­u­ous­ly makes this point, a point that we have heard oth­ers make through­out this series. Internet shut­downs are inher­ent­ly counterproductive.

Laryea: I actu­al­ly think that for Ghana, a gov­ern­ment that wants to lose an elec­tion is the one that would want to shut down the Internet, because it would be so unpop­u­lar with the peo­ple because of what they have been exposed to, and the con­tin­u­al sus­tain­abil­i­ty of that infra­struc­ture and that resource that people—and what it’s done for them. They do not believe that their access to com­mu­ni­ca­tion and their open­ness, their free­ness to be able to com­mu­ni­cate online is less impor­tant than an election.

Anthonio: The Chamber of Telecommunications is not an activist orga­ni­za­tion, despite its insis­tence on retain­ing Internet access for its users. Perhaps, here we can see some hope for Sudan when Muhammad Sharif at Zain insists on work­ing with the gov­ern­ment towards more sus­tain­able solutions.

Laryea: We guide pol­i­cy for­mu­la­tion. Our work is a dif­fer­ent thresh­old. So, we’re look­ing at things with­in the reg­u­la­to­ry ecosys­tem. We’re look­ing at things with­in the pol­i­cy ecosys­tem. We’re look­ing at things around the leg­isla­tive ecosys­tem. And then also gen­er­al issues, oper­a­tional issues that affect the oper­a­tors as a whole. So we exist for the com­mon inter­ests of our mem­bers. So basi­cal­ly we work with gov­ern­ment, we work with pol­i­cy­mak­ers, we work with gov­ern­ment agen­cies, we work with key stake­hold­ers…[record­ing of Laryea is fad­ed out]

Anthonio: What makes the Chamber of Telecommunications more influ­en­tial than Zain is that they unite a nation­al indus­try, rep­re­sent­ing com­mon and col­lec­tive con­cerns and inter­ests that they can fight for.

Laryea: So, if you are in a coun­try or you are in a mar­ket that is faced with such shut­downs, I believe that as mar­ket play­ers you need to be able to come togeth­er because thank­ful­ly in Ghana as a mar­ket we’ve been able to suc­cess­ful­ly be able to run this cham­ber for close to about a decade. And this is a cham­ber that brings most of the major mobile oper­a­tors togeth­er to have deci­sions that inure to the ben­e­fit and the long-term growth of the sec­tor. You’re able to build Ghana that kind of a unit­ed front, to be able to engage your gov­ern­ment, to be able to pro­vide them with the oth­er side of the infor­ma­tion as they don’t know it.

Anthonio: Derek is aware that we have a unique priv­i­lege to be in a coun­try where rule of law pre­vails. Ghana and oth­er coun­tries like it become impor­tant region­al coun­ter­weights to the wide spread of Internet shut­downs glob­al­ly. And though they might be lim­it­ed in what they can do, Internet ser­vice providers are part of the fight to stop this trend of Internet shutdowns. 

This pod­cast series was born from Access Now’s efforts to fight for dig­i­tal rights and Internet access around the world. It seems fit­ting then that we end this series by talk­ing to one last Access Now team mem­ber about the cur­rent and future devel­op­ments in the fight against Internet shutdowns.

Laura O’Brien: So my name is Laura O’Brien, and I am based cur­rent­ly in New York. And I’m the UN Advocacy Officer at Access Now.

Anthonio: It is impor­tant to talk about Access Now’s par­tic­i­pa­tion at the UN in the fight against Internet shut­downs. Because to win this fight, we need to make our cas­es heard at the high­est lev­els and fos­ter mul­ti­lat­er­al inter­na­tion­al col­lab­o­ra­tion between nation-states and organizations.

O’Brien: All NGOs can par­tic­i­pate in some UN process­es from time to time. But NGOs that have con­sul­ta­tive sta­tus with the UN, which is called ECOSOC sta­tus, which stands for the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, have access to cer­tain process­es in par­tic­u­lar. So like oral state­ments at the UN Human Rights Council, for example.

Anthonio: After a four year bat­tle, Access Now was grant­ed ECOSOC sta­tus at the UN in July 2016, enabling us to take the fight for dig­i­tal rights and Internet access to a whole new level.

O’Brien: So when I say I work in UN-facing work, this real­ly entails a vari­ety of projects where we con­tribute insights from all of our arms. So from pol­i­cy, from the helpline, from the legal. And we do con­tribute these insights to var­i­ous UN bod­ies to help devel­op rights-respecting tech pol­i­cy and gov­ern­ments. So this includes oral state­ments, sub­mis­sions, rec­om­men­da­tions, and meet­ings across var­i­ous UN fora.

Anthonio: Working with the UN, Laura is seen encour­ag­ing inter­na­tion­al trends, despite the recent rise of Internet shut­downs around the world.

O’Brien: At the UN few coun­tries will acknowl­edge that they shut down the Internet or argue in favor of shut­downs. But there have been strong state­ments from the UN, par­tic­u­lar­ly from the UN spe­cial rap­por­teurs, con­demn­ing Internet shut­downs. So for instance, back in 2015 there was a state­ment say­ing that Internet shut­downs are nev­er jus­ti­fied under inter­na­tion­al law. And this is a strong state­ment giv­en that inter­pre­ta­tion of Article 19 and oth­er rights that allow excep­tions. And the first res­o­lu­tion of the Human Rights Council refer­ring to Internet shut­downs actu­al­ly came about in 2016, The Internet res­o­lu­tion, fol­low­ing an increase in atten­tion to shut­downs begin­ning back in 2015 with the launch of the Keep It On campaign.

Anthonio: It is state­ments and res­o­lu­tions like these that then feed back into the abil­i­ty of Access Now and the Keep It On coali­tion to take action when a shut­down occurs. In the recent Internet blocks in Belarus, the open let­ter Access Now cosigned cites a num­ber of UN and oth­er inter­na­tion­al res­o­lu­tions that sup­port the argu­ment that Internet dis­rup­tions are imper­mis­si­ble under inter­na­tion­al human rights law.

O’Brien: At Access Now, how we make the case for action against Internet shut­downs is we link it back to inter­na­tion­al law. We see what inter­na­tion­al oblig­a­tions a coun­try has to con­ven­tions, res­o­lu­tions, and we hold them account­able for those obligations. 

Anthonio: In February 2020, the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly or UNGA [pro­nounced unguh”] as Laura calls it, met to dis­cuss the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals as it relates to a num­ber of impor­tant social, human­i­tar­i­an, and cul­tur­al issues.

O’Brien: I remem­ber this time fond­ly. It actu­al­ly was one of the last times I was phys­i­cal­ly present at the United Nations before the pan­dem­ic. And the ses­sion was to recap the out­comes of the UN General Assembly 74, and the 2030 agen­da for sus­tain­able development.

Anthonio: Access Now joined fif­teen oth­er orga­ni­za­tions as part of the Third Committee to review the out­comes of the United Nations General Assembly 74. Peter Micek from Access Now took to the floor.

O’Brien: So Peter, my col­league, spoke both to the emerg­ing risks and also the missed oppor­tu­ni­ties to pro­tect dig­i­tal rights at UNGA 74. So we acknowl­edge that the 2030 agen­da is ground­ed in human rights, and that pro­tect­ing human rights is nec­es­sary to reach the Sustainable Development Goals.

Anthonio: Access Now made sure to bring explic­it atten­tion to Internet shut­downs dur­ing this impor­tant meeting.

O’Brien: So one emerg­ing risk Peter spoke to was Internet shut­downs. He was claim­ing that you know, we see cen­sor­ship of free and open Internet as a bar to achiev­ing the Sustainable Development Goals. And that even if the goals them­selves avoid lan­guage of free­dom of expres­sion, pri­va­cy, and relat­ed human rights, that shut­downs still dam­age edu­ca­tion­al, eco­nom­ic, and health out­comes, specif­i­cal­ly in coun­tries that are just begin­ning to ben­e­fit from the wide­spread aspects of con­nec­tiv­i­ty. And so he was rec­om­mend­ing over­all that the Third Committee should mon­i­tor such dis­rup­tive actions as Internet shut­downs through annu­al report­ing, informed by both civ­il soci­ety and oth­er actors and with the full par­tic­i­pa­tion of respon­si­ble state parties.

Anthonio: The work Access Now is doing at the UN points to anoth­er encour­ag­ing trend that Laura is seeing.

O’Brien: I think more recent­ly my hope has been restored in watch­ing var­i­ous UN experts such as the UN spe­cial rap­por­teurs and UN agen­cies that are increas­ing­ly acknowl­edg­ing the inter­sec­tion of their work to dig­i­tal rights. For instance the UN spe­cial rap­por­teur focus­ing on racism kind of brought that inter­sec­tion of racism in dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies. And then see­ing how shut­downs is like con­stant­ly a reoc­cur­ring issue. It’s a thread that is increas­ing aware­ness beyond those that focus and ded­i­cate time to these issues at the UN lev­el. And then at the same time, at the grass­roots lev­el. You know, the lev­el of advo­ca­cy, the pas­sion, the coor­di­na­tion hap­pen­ing world­wide par­tic­u­lar­ly among young peo­ple who are restrate­giz­ing their ways of mobi­liz­ing makes me have hope that we will con­tin­ue to bring these issues to the fore­front of all discussions.

Anthonio: We need civ­il soci­ety, NGOs, activists, the pri­vate sec­tor, and gov­ern­ments to all work togeth­er towards a com­mon human­i­tar­i­an goal. The spread of more sophis­ti­cat­ed shut­downs is a cause for con­cern. But there is still hope.

O’Brien: In times like these you know, we need to remain pos­i­tive, as much as pos­si­ble. We need to keep up the momen­tum and the pas­sion to engage. And I tru­ly believe on a per­son­al lev­el that the world is tak­ing time to reflect, both indi­vid­u­al­ly and col­lec­tive­ly. And I think if we did­n’t real­ize the impor­tance of dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies before, we cer­tain­ly do now. And we see that the under­ly­ing issues that feed into COVID-19—you know, con­tact trac­ing apps, sur­veil­lance of protesters—it’s all high­light­ing the risks asso­ci­at­ed with tech­nol­o­gy. So we need to keep mobi­liz­ing to fight for the future we want, and for all to be includ­ed in that vision. 

Anthonio: Throughout this series, we have heard how Internet shut­downs start, what hap­pens to peo­ple liv­ing under them, and also how we can pre­vent, cir­cum­vent, and stop shut­downs. As we wrap up the series, I want to leave you with a final thought on the future of Internet shutdowns. 

Suddenly, we have been see­ing gov­ern­ments around the world weaponize Internet shut­downs to tar­get vul­ner­a­ble groups, silence dis­sent­ing invoic­es, quell protests, and cov­er up human rights vio­la­tions. This means that Internet shut­downs will not be going away any­time soon. And that is the more rea­son why each and every one of you lis­ten­ing to this pod­cast series must join the fight against Internet shut­downs by con­tin­u­ing to high­light their impact on human rights, the econ­o­my, edu­ca­tion, health ser­vices, trans­port sys­tems, and bank­ing sec­tor among others.

The time is now. You don’t have to wait until you expe­ri­ence an Internet black­out before you start defend­ing the Internet. Speak up today in order to build, pro­mote, and defend an open, free, secure, and acces­si­ble Internet for a brighter future in the dig­i­tal age. 

Thank you for join­ing us through­out this series and help­ing in the fight to Keep It On. For more infor­ma­tion about how to sup­port the KeepItOn coali­tion and our work, vis­it our web site, www​.access​now​.org. This pod­cast was pro­duced by Access Now and Volume, with fund­ing sup­port from Internews. Our music is by Oman Morí. I am your host Felicia Anthonio, and you have been lis­ten­ing to Kill Switch. Goodbye and remem­ber to Keep It On.

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.