Media Rights Agenda (MRA), the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTaneT), and the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) on May 30, 2017 launched a policy brief on network disruptions entitled “Don’t Hit The Switch: Making The Case Against Network Disruptions In Africa” on the margins of the Africa Internet Summit which took place in Nairobi, Kenya.
The policy brief aims to support civil society advocacy against network disruptions in Africa, specifically to increase knowledge on network disruptions and their implications for human rights and other policy and economic issues as well as providing arguments for use in advocating to policy and decision-makers, private sector organisations and relevant actors.
Don’t Hit The Switch sets out human rights, political and economic arguments against network disruptions which can be used to achieve the stated objective of helping civil society advocate against network disruptions and to counter the usual justifications for such disruptions.
The brief makes it clear that network disruptions constitute serious violations of human rights which are protected by international human rights law and African human rights instruments such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. It also points out that disruptions have impacts beyond human rights, causing harm in a range of policy fields including security, education and health as studies have shown that despite network disruptions often being ‘justified’ by governments on grounds of national security, such disruptions make people feel less safe and secure by making it difficult to access information and communicate with loved ones or emergency services.
This publication makes it clear that the Internet plays a critical role in economic development in Africa which is well recognised by the African Union and even African governments through various regional and national strategies as well as infrastructural developments. It however indicates that not only do such disruptions hamper economic development and reduce country GDP or deter potential investors, they also aggravate political and social tensions and increase public unrest. All together these impacts have been shown to bring significant harm to countries’ economic, social and political lives.
Don’t Hit the Switch highlights that since 2011, network disruptions have taken place in many countries across the world, including in no fewer than 18 states in Africa which is fully one third of the continent’s 54 states.
The brief defines network disruptions as any intentional state or state-sanctioned shutdown, disruption or other limitation of the Internet, social media or other form of electronic communication. The conditions laid out to determine whether or not a network disruption has occurred are that:
- It is intentional rather than unintentional, accidental or as the result of forces or events outside of the control of the state.
- It is a state action or state sanctioned.
- The effect of the action prevents, limits or restricts the ability to communicate or disseminate information through the Internet or electronic communication networks.
It states that the motivations behind these disruptions have varied with some taking place ahead of elections or presidential inaugurations to silence opposition political parties and their supporters, others happening at times of protest (or potential protest) to silence those who wish to demonstrate and air their views, and others even allegedly to prevent cheating during exams.
Similarly, it shows that the scale and impact have varied with some disruptions lasting just a few hours and others lasting for weeks. Other important variations included that where most have affected the entire country concerned, some have targeted particular regions; and while some disruptions only affected certain social media or VoIP calls, others have shut down the entire Internet.
It however doesn’t fail to point out that despite these differences, when viewed collectively, these disruptions present a clear and increasing pattern of governments in Africa disrupting networks for their own benefit and therefore violating the human rights of individuals which have policy and economic consequences.
Notably, the brief points out that even in situations where governments face legitimate challenges, network disruptions are a fundamentally disproportionate response.
It lays out a number of regional and international bodies, individuals and relevant actors that have condemned network disruptions including the the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, among others. It also reveals that the economic costs of network disruptions have been highlighted by, amongst others, Deloitte and the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.
In addition to laying down political, economic and human rights arguments, the policy brief records network disruptions in Africa since 2011 and makes recommendations.
Amongst its recommendations are that stricter mechanisms and sanctions at the international and intergovernmental levels should be put in place to deter governments from network disruptions.
It recommends that open, secure and free access and use of the Internet should be recognised as a right as well as for rights-based multi-stakeholder approaches to be adopted in Internet policy formulation to ensure that Internet policies are human rights-respecting.
The publication further establishes that governments have an obligation to protect the rights of their citizenry offline and online which should not be sacrificed at any point in the name of national security, stability and/or peace. It explains that both are responsibilities of governments and should both be considered as such so that decisions on both areas complement each other rather than override each other.
Other recommendations include leveraging the power of ICTs, the Internet and social media for economic development and to gain democratic advantage and particularly reinforce democratic processes, driving efficiency, fostering innovation, empowering public sector workers, ensuring transparency and accountability, and exposing corruption. It also includes more awareness and sensitisation to correct misconceptions and re-orient governments and other stakeholders on why the Internet should remain open at all times.
The policy brief was published as part of the Africa Regional Strategy under the Global Internet Freedom Program supported by Global Partners Digital, London and the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
The policy brief is available for download at http://mediarightsagenda.net/web/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/DONT_HIT_THE_SWITCH.pdf