Workshop Adopts Principles on Network Disruptions, Launches ‘Policy Brief’ on Internet Shutdown

Ms. Morisola Alabi, Legal Officer, Media Rights Agenda
Ms. Morisola Alabi, Legal Officer, Media Rights Agenda

Policies aimed at addressing network disruptions in Africa should be developed in an open, inclusive and transparent manner, according to participants at a workshop held in Nairobi, Kenya, in May 2017.

The participants, who adopted principles for the development of policies to address network disruptions, said such policies should not, directly or indirectly, result in any adverse impacts upon the exercise or enjoyment of human rights, or cause harm to important national and societal interests such as sustainable development; and should be consistent with, and developed in accordance with, international human rights law and standards, and relevant documents.

The workshop also launched a policy brief on internet shutdown entitled Don’t Hit the Switch: Making the Case Against Internet Disruptions in Africa.

The workshop, held on May 30, 2017 on the margins of the Africa Internet Summit (AIS) at Panari Hotel in Nairobi, was organized by Media Rights Agenda (MRA), the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), based in Accra, Ghana, and the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet) in Nairobi, in collaboration with the London-based Global Partner Digital (GPD).

The three partners  brought together at the workshop other organisations in the region to discuss “Network Disruptions in Africa: Developing Human Rights”.

Participants at the workshop discussed the “policy brief” on network disruptions in Africa following presentations made on each of its chapters by a representative of each of the three regional partners in which they advanced human rights, political and economic arguments against internet shutdowns in Africa.

At the end of the workshop, a draft joint communiqué containing the principles was presented to participants for discussion and adoption by Ms Morisola Alaba, a legal officer at Media Rights Agenda, while Ms Grace Bomu of KICTaneT anchored the discussions on the communique.

Mr. Abdullai Kamara of Centre for Media Studies and Peace-building (CEMESP) in Liberia, a partner organisation of the MFWA, framed the issues and presentation of the brief on Network Shutdowns.

Ms Eseohe Ojo, Programme Manager for Digital Rights at MRA, made a presentation on the political arguments against network disruptions, highlighting the government’s use of national security, law and order, as excuses for Internet shutdowns.  She advanced political arguments for countering such claims and provided other arguments which can be made to dissuade governments against Internet shutdowns such as maintaining the government’s positive image.

Mr. Muheeb Saeed of the MFWA presented the human rights arguments of the policy brief with his highlight on the fact that there are 18 African countries that have shut down the internet over the last 6 years. He noted the negative implications of internet shutdowns on human rights and pointed out that the practice violates established human rights norms and standards as indicated in the statements of relevant regional and international human rights bodies.

Ms Bomu of KICTANet based her presentation on the economic arguments against Internet shutdowns with a focus on the economic losses incurred when the internet is shut down and the fact that the cost of the shutdown is ultimately paid by the consumers.

Discussions were made around the issue of the government shutting down the internet during specific periods and sometimes, every other telecommunication network in order for citizens not to have any platform to discuss as well as the need for technical experts and ISPs to have the power to withstand government interference.

There was a call to review the laws governing telecommunications companies so the governments will no longer have sweeping powers over them. Participants pointed out that it is important for ISPs to be independent and control their own services.

It was also suggested that when internet shutdowns is being discussed it should start with question of who owns the internet. There should be looping of the bodies involved in one way or the other on internet related issues and the civil society should be a bridge between the government and other stakeholders. It was further suggested that sanctions can be another way to stop government from shutting down the internet, in which the government have to be made to pay heavily in the event that they want to shut down the internet.

Mr. Andrew Alston, Co-author of the anti-shutdown policy, discussed the policy which was to be proposed at the AIS.

He spoke specifically on the anti-shutdown policy, stating that it is not just about taking away IP addresses of the government whenever they shut down the internet but it is also about getting the governments to the table and letting them know civil society’s stand on the internet shutdown.

Mr. Alston noted a significant increase in government participation at AFRINIC from three to 24 since the policy came to the fore and suggested that financial penalty should be imposed on governments that shutdown the internet.

He ended on the note that people should support the intent and the argument around the policy even if the punishment in the policy is not supported, adding that there is need for an advocacy strategy that brings all internet stakeholders to debate and find a solution concerning internet shutdown.

Mr. Alston stated that although he did not expect the policy to garner the unanimous vote required to adopt it, he expects it to open up a debate around the issue.

Mr. Ephraim Kenyanito of the East African office of ARTICLE 19, proposed the inclusion of reference to Resolution 362, adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in November 2016, in the communiqué, arguing that it is a relevant document with more binding force.  This was agreed to and the communiqué was adopted by the workshop.