#KeepItOn Coalition Appeals for end to Internet Shutdown Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

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Brett Solomon, Executive Director, AccessNow
Brett Solomon, Executive Director, AccessNow

The #KeepItOn coalition, a global network that unites more than 210 organizations from 75 countries, has appealed to the Deputy Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. ZsuzsannaJakab, to use her good office to urge the governments of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, and Pakistan to end the ongoing internet shutdowns in their respective countries amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The coalition in an open letter said: “We appeal to you to use the powers of your good office as the Deputy Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), to impress on the authorities in Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, and Pakistan the need to put an end to the ongoing internet disruptions affecting minority populations in these countries.”

It pointed out that intentional disruptions of internet access prevent the spread of health information, and represent an affront to the WHO Constitution, which recognizes that the extension “to all peoples of the benefits of medical, psychological and related knowledge is essential to the fullest attainment of health,” and further, that “[] informed opinion and active cooperation on the part of the public are of the utmost importance in the improvement of the health of the people.”

It also called attention to the fact that where internet access is intentionally degraded or shut down, are unable to inform themselves and engage in online discourse about COVID-19.

The coalition said Access Now’s STOP project, in collaboration with the #KeepItOn coalition, recorded at least 213 shutdowns in 2019, as compared to 196 instances in 2018. It noted that as shutdowns increase in number, they are lasting longer, affecting more people, and increasingly being targeted at vulnerable groups such as refugees.

It noted that “as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, these restrictions are severely impacting people’s fundamental rights to freedom of expression, privacy, access to information, and health.”

The group stated that people are struggling to communicate with their families and loved ones but most worryingly, the risks for minority groups are being compounded, as they are denied access to the health information on COVID-19 provided by the WHO and other experts that could save their lives.

Saying the COVID-19 pandemic amplifies the need for access to universal, resilient, open, secure, and affordable access to information and communications technologies for all, the coalition noted that, as reiterated by the WHO Director-General, access to credible and timely information and communications tools are of paramount importance to stop the spread of the virus and advance public health.

Commending her efforts to increase access to reliable information through her partnership with WhatsApp and Facebook via the WHO Health Alert messaging service, the group reminded her that the WHO can and should continue to play a role in impressing on states the need for universal internet access, especially for the vulnerable and marginalized communities she serves, and in light of the global pandemic.

Citing various instances of internet shutdowns in India, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Bangladeshi, the group said it received several reports indicating that residents in Jammu and Kashmir are unable to access information about COVID-19 due to the restriction on high-speed 4G internet access in these areas.

The #KeepItOn coalition, therefore, called on the office of the Deputy Director-General of WHO to:

  1. Urge the governments of India, Myanmar, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and any other that shuts down the internet, to restore access to the internet in these regions to enable marginalized communities to enjoy their fundamental right of access to information, a core obligation of states and necessary to achieve the highest attainable standard of health.
  2. Publicly denounce the use of internet shutdowns as a hindrance to the WHO mission and an acute threat to public health, and encourage governments to recognize the important role of the internet in times of crises.
  3. Continue to prioritize efforts to increase access to reliable information and encourage active cooperation on the part of the public, by providing the latest news and information on COVID-19, in order to improve the health of all people.