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.