Discussing Network Disruptions at FIFAfrica 2021

Sandra Aceng Oct. 15, 2021

Have you been wondering whether internet shutdowns have an impact on gender? Who is responsible for the shutdowns? What are the reasons cited for shutting down the internet? How and when do shutdowns occur?


During the Global Network Initiative (GNI)’s Learning Call on Network Disruptions at the 2021 Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) on Thursday, 30 September at 16:30-18:00 East Africa Time, diverse speakers were able to explore some of these questions and concerns on network disruptions during the moderated session by Sarina Phu, the GNI’s Research and Program Associate.

The foundation of the session was laid 2 years back in 2019 by Clement Voule in which he presented to the Human Rights Council a thematic report examining the intersection between digital technology and the enjoyment of human rights to Freedom and Peaceful Assembly. In the report, he raises an alarm at the rising numbers of internet shutdowns during a critical democratic moment such as election and peaceful protest and their harmful impacts on human rights. The report showed that shutdowns are a violation of human rights to peaceful assembly provided for in Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which can never be considered a lawful restriction and indeed internet freedom fail to meet all the condition provided for in Article 21 of the ICCPR to justify the restriction on peaceful assembly. Particularly, the internet shutdown is inconsistent with the necessity and proportionality requirement in a democratic society, these expose dough on those exercising their peaceful rights to assembly. And a large-scale shutdown, in particular, has been deemed as a form of collective punishment and means to retain power. Hence the number of governments imposing internet shutdowns during demonstrations continues to grow.

Life Interrupted Report

Tomiwa Ilori from the University of Pretoria discussed his new report titled “Life Interrupted: Centering the Social Impacts of Network Disruptions in Advocacy in Africa”. The report specifically focuses on internet interruptions in Africa. It reflects and emphasizes how an internet shutdown socially affects society using the human rights perspectives to view those social impacts.

States give very many reasons to shut down the internet but these reasons do not justify the need for this measure: mainly because the effects are usually disproportionate and do not comply with the national human rights laws. Internet shutdowns by many states are intended to bring law and order during political events because the governments might not want the peaceful protests to spread. There is a need to identify a set of guidelines and rules by the state actors and other actors to advocate for specific rules regarding content restrictions.

Orange and the Role of Companies

Yves Nissim, the VP, Head of Transformation and Operation in CSR, Orange Telecom provided insights into the operational issues in France, as well as other countries in Europe, and Africa. Nissim sees internet shutdowns as a loss in terms of air time which is the main part of the business.

Orange is receiving multiple demands from the governments to shut down the internet during election periods, and civil unrest to remove facilities from internet platforms, and shut down the mobile network. It is difficult for the companies to make civil society understand that companies are not responsible for the demand of shutdowns. Following the GNI’s principles, Orange wrote to the national security, and this caused threats to Orange CEO’s security environment and they finally went to Orange’s fiber and shut down the internet themselves. Governments are the origin of demand and shutdowns because force is being used against companies and yet the safety of the people on the ground is a priority. Although companies try to resist, they can only comply with the demand in case of the real potential of civil unrest, and national security.

The Impact of Internet Shutdowns on Women’s Online Expression and Participation in Uganda

Sandra Aceng, the Program Manager, WOUGNET highlighted the research findings on “The impact of the internet shut down on women online, expression, and participation in Uganda” which was part of the GNI/Internews Fellowship 2020. The study specifically focused on the nature and the forms of internet shutdowns, their impacts on women and girls, and coping strategies adopted by women and girls to circumvent internet blockage. Exploring such impacts reflects on the human impact of psychological, social, and personal lives of women which are not quantifiable using network measurements. You can read more about the impact of internet shutdowns on different genders here.

Government Perspective, and Response to Research Reports

James Mutandwa, the Deputy Director (Policy and Strategic Planning), Zimbabwe Ministry of ICT Postal and Courier Services responded to the presented reports by various speakers from the government perspective. He emphasizes that network disruptions fit very well with the government’s perspectives rather than internet shutdowns because it occurs when there is an outage resulting in the end-users losing a connection hence making it difficult to communicate or access the content.

Based on the UN Special Rapporteur report, James made emphasis on the fact that the internet is an enabler to the achievement of the SDGs. So, when it is being shut down, then the development objectives cannot be achieved and for marginalised groups, it can even lead to a worsened situation: Sandra underlines how shutdowns affect women differently in urban areas and rural areas; it is reminded that there is still an urban-rural digital divide and conducting network measurements enables the understanding of the level of disruptions.

Tomiwa Ilori says the legal and policy areas must be looked at; the government is very keen and plays its role in case of demands to shut down of the internet. Orange as a provider still has a right to refuse. An argument can be financial loss or loss of trust from users.

What Can We Do against Internet Shutdowns and What is the Way Forward?

  • There is a need for action by the state, companies, international institutions, and other relevant actors to ensure that applicable human rights norms and standards can be effectively implemented through enacting legislation prohibiting and punishing measures like internet shutdowns.
  • Investors in digital companies including telecommunication companies should publicly communicate their expectations, policies and due diligence, and effective transparency mechanisms to address the internet shutdown.
  • Telecom companies should scale up measures to mitigate the impacts of the shutdown because they have the capacity to challenge the shutdown before the court. You can watch and listen more about the measures here.

The government agrees with the issues mentioned in the reports and this will further be considered in the review of future national ICT policies.

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