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21 Sep 2016

Colette G. St-Onge, Digital Campaigns Officer, ShareAction

Internet shutdowns: Bad for human rights, bad for business

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There have been over 40 recorded internet shutdowns all over the world, from Bahrain to India to Ethiopia, so far in 2016. This is a sharp rise on the 15 recorded shutdowns in 2015. Shutdowns are increasingly becoming a key issue for those of us promoting human rights in the private sector. We are now seeking to drive investor action on this issue, as a risk to the businesses they invest in and their customers. The most high-profile shutdown this year occurred during the attempted coup d’état in Turkey in July, when media coverage of the coup detailed the unavailability of social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for two hours.

The reality is that ICT companies should play a central role in pushing back against the rise of internet shutdowns - and some key players are.

While the responsibility for the decision to order a shutdown rests with governments, the orders are carried out by information and communication technology (ICT) companies. These companies are exposed to financial and reputational risks as a result. Vodafone faced significant public pressure following a shutdown in Egypt during the Arab Spring of 2011 and has since developed its awareness of these risks. The reality is that ICT companies should play a central role in pushing back against the rise of internet shutdowns - and some key players are, including Vodafone. While many larger companies highlight their commitment to human rights and freedom of expression, the way they anticipate and respond to shutdown requests--including transparency on when and where these requests occur--is a chance for them to show their mettle.

Governments often justify a shutdown order on the grounds that it is necessary to interrupt communications for security purposes. While security is an important concern, the reality is that the risk is often overblown while the human rights impacts are undeniable and significant. During a shutdown, there is no ability for people - ranging from business owners to journalists to human rights defenders - to exercise their freedom of expression online.

The United Nations Human Rights Council approved a resolution supporting human rights online in June 2016 that unequivocally condemns the use of shutdowns. Significantly, human rights advocates are not alone in recognising that shutdowns are a significant risk to human rights and to business. Numerous other stakeholders have spoken out against the practice.

The momentum to tackle the rise of internet shutdowns is obviously growing.

The company-led Telecommunications Industry Dialogue and the multi-stakeholder Global Network Initiative issued a joint statement in July 2016 expressing similar concern. The statement also noted  that  the “protection of national security and public safety are important government concerns. Network shutdowns, and the wholesale blocking of internet services, however, are drastic measures that often risk being disproportionate in their impact.” The companies supporting this statement are Millicom, Nokia, Orange, Telefónica, Telenor Group, TeliaSonera and Vodafone Group. The GSM Association, one of the world’s largest technology associations, also issued new guidelines in July 2016 for ICT companies receiving what it calls Service Restriction Orders.

The momentum to tackle the rise of internet shutdowns is obviously growing. The question now is whether there is anything we can do to promote and build on that momentum. There is. And we think investors are best placed to make this happen.

ShareAction and Access Now have published an investor briefing outlining why internet shutdowns pose financial and reputational risks to investors. The briefing also provides key recommendations on how investors can engage the ICT companies in which they have holdings to mitigate exposure to these risks. The recommendations are:

  1. Investors should encourage companies to appoint a member or committee from the Board of Directors to be responsible for policies and related risk management on internet shutdowns.

  2. Investors should ensure companies have a clear policy development process for operational decision making relating to entering and operating in countries where governments may request a shutdown of internet services.

  3. Investors should encourage companies to publish transparency reports, to the extent legally possible, that list the countries in which they operate, and clarify in which countries they have received requests for service shutdown or monitoring.

ShareAction is now engaging the investment community on internet shutdowns and encouraging investors to make the suggested recommendations to the ICT companies in which they are invested. The more companies become aware of the risks associated with shutdowns and integrate the recommendations outlined in this briefing, the more we can ensure that the momentum against internet shutdowns translates into a significant call to end the practice globally, safeguarding civic space.

Click here for more information on ShareAction’s Digital Rights campaign.