Internet shutdowns dangerous to democracies should be stopped, says UN

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The UN has called on countries to stop imposing internet shutdowns or shutdowns, warning on Thursday that they can have disastrous, even deadly consequences.

In a new report, the UN human rights office has warned that “the dramatic real effects of the closures on the lives and human rights of millions of people are vastly underestimated”.

“Hospitals cannot contact their doctors in an emergency, voters are deprived of information about candidates, artisans are cut off from their customers and…peaceful protesters who are victims of violent attacks cannot call for help” may be just some of the impacts of shutting down internet and telecommunications services, he said.

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet stressed in a statement that such shutdowns occur at a time when the digital world has become “essential for the realization of many human rights”.

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“The internet shutdown is causing incalculable damage, both in material terms and in terms of human rights.”

The first major internet shutdown that captured global attention took place in Egypt in 2011, during the Tahrir Square protests, and was accompanied by hundreds of arrests and killings.

“Since that time, we’ve just seen this proliferate across the world,” Peggy Hicks, head of the rights office’s thematic engagement division, told reporters.

  • “Dangerous for democracy” –

This is all the more worrying as these closures often seem to be accompanied or followed by serious rights violations, including attacks on freedom of expression, but also arbitrary arrests and killings.

Hicks pointed to Iran’s 2019 internet blackout as authorities cracked down on nationwide protests, the internet shutdown amid protests over disputed elections in Belarus in 2020, and repeated shutdowns since the coup. military state in Myanmar last year.

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“One of the main findings of the report is that when you see a shutdown happening, it’s time to start caring about human rights,” she said.

The report notes that the #KeepItOn coalition, which monitors shutdown episodes around the world, documented 931 shutdowns between 2016 and 2021 in 74 countries, some of which blocked communications repeatedly and for long periods.

But Hicks pointed out that it was difficult to gather information about the shutdowns, and particularly about less comprehensive measures like blocking access to major online platforms and throttling bandwidth or throttling mobile services. .

“These are just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

Many governments refuse to acknowledge that they ordered communications interference and sometimes pressure telecommunications companies to prevent them from revealing why communications were blocked or slowed down.

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When authorities admit to having ordered a shutdown, they often justify it out of public safety concerns or the need to contain the spread of hostility or violence, or to counter misinformation.

But the report showed that closures often have the opposite effect.

“Closures themselves can contribute to serious abuses by limiting the ability to report and creating an environment in which violence and impunity can thrive,” Hicks said.

She said she was particularly concerned about a pattern of internet shutdowns and disruptions used to control news surrounding the election, with at least 52 such instances over the five-year period.

“This is when people need access to information the most,” she said.

“Closures are dangerous for democracy.”


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