Global internet shutdowns, affecting over 4 billion individuals in the first half of 2023, are raising serious human rights and economic concerns. While often justified as security measures, they increasingly facilitate digital authoritarianism, violating international human rights norms, including freedom of speech and access to information, a stance supported by UN Special Rapporteur Clément Nyaletsossi Voule and the European Court of Human Rights.
Internet shutdowns are causing widespread disruptions globally, affecting human rights and economies. Over 4 billion individuals were affected in the first half of 2023 due to 82 internet restrictions in 29 countries. Iran and India have been prominent in imposing these shutdowns. EU’s Thierry Breton hinted at potential online platform suspensions, raising concerns over the misuse of the Digital Services Act for censorship.
Shutdowns are often justified as measures to maintain national security or prevent misinformation. However, they have increasingly become tools for digital authoritarianism, infringing on fundamental human rights including freedom of speech and access to information. The UN Special Rapporteur, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, emphasized that these shutdowns violate international human rights law. The European Court of Human Rights upheld the importance of the Internet in facilitating access to news and information.
Recent incidents in Gabon highlight the severity of the issue, with a complete internet blackout occurring on the day of presidential and legislative elections. The blackout, aimed at preventing misinformation and violence, was followed by a military coup and a gradual restoration of internet connectivity. This isn’t a first for Gabon, pointing to a recurring issue with serious implications for human rights and democratic processes.
The UN Human Rights Council urged private companies, including ISPs and telecoms, to challenge internet shutdowns lawfully. Despite calls for adherence to human rights principles, many telecoms remain state-controlled, complying with government demands at the expense of human rights. The situation necessitates urgent action, with recommendations for users to prepare for shutdowns by utilizing VPNs, albeit with caution due to privacy concerns.