Internet shutdowns: telecommunications companies have responsibilities – Jeune Afrique

Like other regions of the world, Africa is experiencing the recurring phenomenon of deliberate internet shutdowns. Thus, in 2018, 17 internet cuts were noted in Africa against at least 25 in 2019. Countries such as Algeria, Benin, Cameroon, the DRC, Ethiopia cut off the internet during presidential elections or acute political or social crises.

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In 2020, 155 internet shutdowns took place in 29 countries around the world, including 10 in Africa, in countries such as Burundi, Chad, Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya, Sudan or Uganda . In 2021, 50 blackouts affected 21 countries around the world, including Niger, Congo and Chad. Over the past twenty-four years, internet access has been cut in more than 30 African states.

The recent report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations on the cuts in Internet access gives a fairly exhaustive definition of the phenomenon.

Impact on the ballots

Cuts in internet access often occur during presidential elections, intense political or social demonstrations and exams nationals. Almost half of the cuts recorded between 2016 and 2021 were carried out in the context of protest and political crisis, with 225 cuts recorded during public demonstrations.

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Internet shutdowns affected at least 52 elections between 2016 and 2021. In 2019 alone, 14 African countries disrupted internet access during elections. Among the reasons often cited are the need to preserve the peace and security of people and property, the fight against false information, online hate speech and exam fraud.

The Internet and social networks strengthen democracy, guarantee freedom of expression, access to information online but also the exercise of other rights, in particular social and economic.

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During an election period, an internet shutdown can deprive citizens of their right to participate in public debates and make an informed choice. Without the internet, journalists cannot properly inform populations, nor can observers effectively monitor the electoral process. This promotes opacity and the manipulation of information by the authorities. There are therefore close links between access to information and democratic and transparent elections.

Often, the authorities communicate little or badly on the subject

By shutting down the internet during critical moments, some political regimes with little concern for democracy, human rights and transparency put a heavy cloak on information, which they can manipulate as they please. Often, the reasons – security and others – that they invoke do not hide a political will to control the network, to influence elections or to hide human rights violations. This attitude of States constitutes a threat to democracy and fundamental freedoms.

Total opacity

Internet shutdowns impact, among other things, the right to education and health, as has been recalled by experts and activists. They also have very significant economic and social consequences.. Their total cost in the world, in 2020, is estimated at more than 4 billion dollars (4.006 million euros), of which more than 200 million just for sub-Saharan Africa.

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Cameroon: 1.3 million dollars lost since the Internet shutdown in the English-speaking area

Often, the orders to shut down the internet and their execution are opaque and few telecom operators communicate or engage in a real dynamic of preventing these shutdowns and respecting human rights, as shown by a recent report on the topic. Often, the authorities communicate little or badly on the subject. Thus, in 228 of the cases recorded in 55 countries between 2016 and 2021, the official justification was unknown. In 138 cases, the authorities who ordered the cuts were not identified.

They are not justifiable, even in times of conflict

General internet shutdowns are considered contrary to international human rights law. In June 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning network shutdowns and other intentional access restrictions, which are considered violations of international human rights law.

In November 2016, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights issued a statement arguing that internet shutdowns are not justifiable, under international human rights law, even in times of conflict. The Global Network Initiative’s (GNI) Freedom of Expression and Privacy Principles point in the same direction.

United Nations Guiding Principles

Telecommunications companies have a responsibility to respect human rights. To do this, they must comply, among other things, with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which are the reference document, to which we could add the Guide to the application of these same Guiding Principles. intended for the new information and communication technologies (ICT) sector.

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To fully play their role and assume their responsibility in terms of human rights, telecommunications companies should above all exercise genuine due diligence in order to be able to identify and assess their actual and potential impact on human rights. A human rights policy and effective remedies for victims internet shutdowns would allow companies to prevent impacts, mitigate them or carry out repairs to need.

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Internet shutdowns: telecommunications companies have responsibilities – Jeune Afrique

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