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.
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.accessnow.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.