FOC Urges States to Publicly Commit to Refrain from Internet Shutdowns During Elections

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The Freedom Online Coalition (FOC), an inter-governmental alliance of 38 countries working together to advance Internet freedom, has called on all United Nations Member States to publicly commit to refrain from restricting the Internet and digital communications during electoral periods, saying “Access to information is a cornerstone of informed voting and decision-making during elections”.

In a “Joint Statement on Internet Shutdowns and Elections”, launched on October 10, 2023 at the Internet Governance Forum in Kyoto, Japan, the FOC strongly condemned “intentional measures taken by States to undermine an open, free, global and interoperable Internet and digital communications platforms through shutdowns and network disruptions before, during, and following electoral periods.”

According to the Coalition, “Elections are key democratic milestones and help hold governments accountable and responsive to the needs of their citizens. Protecting, respecting, and promoting human rights is essential to foster free and fair elections. This includes the rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly, and to freedom of expression and opinion, which includes the freedom to seek, receive and impart information.”

The FOC said it was deeply concerned by the growing trend of State-sponsored Internet shutdowns and network disruptions amid elections, arguing that by their very nature, Internet shutdowns restrict human rights and that Internet shutdowns imposed in the context of elections prevent individuals from accessing information that would help them make informed decisions at the polls.

It contended that such measures also affect the ability of different actors, including journalists and media workers, election observers, human rights defenders, and political candidates, to participate fully and freely in the electoral process while specifically preventing individuals from exercising free expression about the elections, undermining the watchdog role of journalists and media during elections, obstructing the efforts of those documenting elections, which limits information integrity, and restricting electoral campaigning and the organization of political gatherings, online and offline, during electoral periods.

The FOC noted that by obstructing the free flow of information, opinions, and expression, which are necessary to build public trust and facilitate free and fair elections, Internet shutdowns threaten the legitimacy of the electoral process.

It said: “Extensive data and research from civil society and the United Nations, including the latter’s independent experts, provide evidence that Internet shutdowns impact the enjoyment of human rights during electoral periods, have a negative impact on the economy, and can contribute to insecurity, increasing the likelihood of hostilities and violence”.

The FOC recalled its previous 2017 Joint Statement on State Sponsored Network Disruptions, which calls on States to end Internet shutdowns, and its Accompanying Good Practices for Governments document, along with its 2022 Joint Statement on Internet Shutdowns in Iran, and further called “on States to refrain from shutting down the Internet and digital communications platforms before, during, and following electoral periods, as aligned with States’ international human rights obligations and commitments, particularly Article 25(b) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights9, and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action”.

It also highlighted the 2021 General Assembly resolution on Strengthening the role of the United Nations in enhancing periodic and genuine elections and the promotion of democratization, which was adopted by consensus, and which “strongly condemns any manipulation of election processes.”

The FOC therefore called on UN Member States to respect “human rights and fundamental freedoms of all persons.”