In the 21st Century, a new divide between the poor and the rich is emerging, one that is threatening the basic tenants of freedom and development. The reach of the internet is simultaneously fast and secure, and categorically denying that to an individual is now considered a violation of basic human rights, according to a landmark U.N. resolution that was adopted by the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Welcomed by Article 19 in June 2016, this significant resolution (A/HRC/32/L.20) on “the Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet” was passed by consensus and adopted (with amendments) by a few countries such as Saudi Arabia, India, Russia and China.
For the first time ever, the council session was attended by all 194 member states and marked the 10-year anniversary of the UNHCR. This resolution reaffirms that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.”
The U.N. unequivocally condemned measures to disrupt access to online information and called upon on all states to formulate Internet-related public policies that have the objective of universal access and enjoyment of human rights at their core.
Digital rights groups are celebrating this win.
Though the resolution is non-binding, it advocates the internet as “an important tool for fostering citizen and civil society participation” and for “development in every community.” The resolution also emphasizes the need for “access to information on the Internet,” which will facilitate “vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education globally.”
Despite the compelling call to make internet accessible to all, some states continue to violate this basic human right and deprive citizens of global connectivity.
For developing countries, this right to internet access is crucial to their other basic rights. According to rights advocacy group ahumanright.org, education, political participation and economic opportunity are rights among many others that are now directly related to how global an individual’s reach is.
Internet-enabled devices have the potential to level the playing field for workers who have the skills but not the platform to advance to better economic opportunities. Free and open courses enable online learners to upgrade their vocational and soft skills without cost. More importantly, instant communication made possible through internet is vital to saving lives in cases of emergencies.
In the past, governments have used disruption of internet access to exert power over its citizens, the most iconic example being the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. In a bid to restore order against the political uprising, Hosni Mubarak’s government ordered an internet shutdown that lasted five days, and citizens were left powerless in the name of ‘national security.’
More recently, the Turkish government imposed a complete media blackout following a string of bombings, as well as a social media blackout after the failed military coup on 15 July. Over the years, Turkey is employing more sophisticated ways to prevent detection of internet disruption including bandwidth throttling.
However, a critical fact is that internet shutdowns do very little to keep people safe but causes harm to both the long and short term socio-economic environment of the country. A 2016 Brookings Institution report mapping the economic costs of internet shutdowns shows a bleak picture.
The report reveals an estimate of $2.4 billion in losses to countries acting in defence of national security and reducing public dissidence. Darrell West, founding director of Centre for Technology Innovation, stated in the report that governments disrupting internet access is akin to “shooting themselves in the foot” and damages the economic conditions in the country.
Following the five-day shutdown in Egypt, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) had estimated the loss of revenue to be around $90 million. The ripple effect of such disruption can be felt years later where foreign direct investments in the ICT sector are concerned, which rely on stable internet communication.
Governments need to view internet disruption as an economic harm and not a security issue, as it is made out to be, says Kath Cummins, director of communications and outreach at the Global Network Initiative highlights in the Brookings report.
However, internet shutdowns have a much more serious impact than economic harm. Fatalities occur as an aftermath of such events, as highlighted by Deji Olukotun, senior global advocacy manager at the digital rights group Access Now. Olukotun cited the example of the ongoing Ethiopian internet shutdown in the Oromia region amidst a state of emergency, where 50 people died because of the shutdown that prevented mobile ambulatory services from saving lives.
To mitigate and prevent future human and economic loss, the New York based group Access Now is currently running a campaign on Twitter called #KeepItOn. The campaign advocates the continuity of internet, and includes more than 100 organizations and businesses, emergency services, journalists and demonstrators that are part of a global advocacy to defend the digital rights of internet users. Keeping mobile ambulatory services running and accessible during times of crises is just one the of the preventative goals the group fights for.
Economic repercussions of internet shutdowns last over time and distance, as observed by MIT’s Technology Policy Director Taylor Reynolds. Regular internet disruptions that last for days easily sound a death knell for the telecommunications market. For example, Vodafone services in faraway New Zealand were disrupted following internet shutdown in Egypt, when Vodafone New Zealand was not able to route its calls to its customer support centre in Cairo.
Simultaneously, confidence in investor markets is shaken for years down the line as digital economy is a becoming an integral part of GDP with increasing e-commerce and online transactions around the globe.
According to Oluktun, “shutdowns are like avalanches that shear through the foundation for economic growth.” Many disruptions have taken place in emerging democracies and others in more authoritarian governments, but the maximum damage in economy is incurred to people in low-income areas, as 50 percent of the 3 billion internet users reside in developing countries, according to Internet Society’s (ISOC) Global Internet Report 2014.
The report found that mobile broadband services are adopted at faster rates than mobile cellular services, thanks to the doors its opens. For example, MIT’s OpenCourseWare had more than 1.5 million online visits, while Bangladesh has digitized primary and secondary textbooks and made them available online.
The power of the internet is significantly higher in marginalized areas than in developed regions, as reflected in the 2014 survey by ISOC, which asked respondents how essential the internet is for knowledge and education. Sixty percent of African, Middle Eastern and Latin American respondents answered ‘Strongly Agree’ in comparison to the 30 percent by those in North America and Europe.
Social indicators such as political freedom and life expectancy need to be analysed in depth in the aftermath of disruption in online information to low-income areas. More work needs to be done to give internet users in democratic countries a stronger unified voice supporting internet as an economic tool, and more importantly, as a modern basic human right.
Anam Salim is a socio-political researcher and freelance journalist, writing about the impact of technology on the developing world. She was awarded the Elite Graduate award in the School of Law, Development and International Studies.