The Global Network Initiative and the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue are deeply concerned by the increasing number of government orders to shut down or restrict access to communication networks and related services around the world.
Government-mandated disruptions of communications networks, network services (such as SMS), or internet services (such as social media, search engines, or news sites) can undermine security and public safety, threaten free expression, restrict access to vital emergency, payment and health services, and disrupt contact with family members and friends. In some countries, the orders frequently occur at politically sensitive moments, during unrest or in the lead-up to elections, restricting the free flow of information.
Disruptions also negatively affect a broad range of economic activity, preventing financial transactions, stalling e-commerce and undermining business operations. Even temporary disruptions may complicate the provision of medical care and education, which increasingly rely on the sharing of digital information.
“Government-ordered disruptions of communications networks and services are on the rise. The consequences of such orders can be as dire as the security threats they ostensibly target,” said Mark Stephens, CBE, Independent Chair of the GNI Board. “They cut off citizens from essential information and contact with loved ones, impede the work of emergency and security services, and undermine economic activity,” he said.
In a recent landmark resolution, the United Nations Human Rights Council stated that it “Condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law.” The UN HRC specifically “calls on all States to refrain from and cease such measures.”
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. Governments who employ these measures often do so without justifying them as necessary and proportionate under international human rights standards.
Clear, precise and transparent legal frameworks regarding government authority to restrict communications do not exist in all states, and provisions for adequate, independent oversight are often absent. Such safeguards are critical to ensure restrictions are strictly necessary and proportionate. Where the rule of law is weak, these orders can present even greater human rights risks.
As a first step, the Industry Dialogue and the GNI urge governments to be transparent with their citizens about the government role in shutting down or restricting networks and services, and the legal justifications for any restrictions. Importantly, shutdown orders should permit companies to disclose in a timely manner to their customers that services have been restricted pursuant to a government order.
“ICT companies, from mobile network operators to social media companies, should cooperate with each other and with experts across academia, governments, international institutions, civil society, and the media to raise awareness of the serious, long-term social and economic impacts of these disruptions, said Sidsela Nyebak of Telenor Group, Chair of the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue. “ Stakeholders should work to inform public debate and encourage human rights-based laws and policies,” she said.
About the Global Network Initiative
Launched in 2008, the Global Network Initiative occupies a unique place in the global conversation about freedom of expression and privacy in the Information and Communications Technology Sector. The GNI is a multistakeholder forum that brings together information and communications technology companies, civil society (including human rights and press freedom groups), academics and investors from around the world to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy.
About the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue
The Telecommunications Industry Dialogue is a group of telecommunications operators and vendors who jointly address freedom of expression and privacy in the telecommunications sector in the context of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These companies have a global footprint, providing telecommunications services and equipment to consumers, businesses, and governments in nearly 100 countries worldwide. In March of 2013, the Industry Dialogue adopted a set of Guiding Principles, which explore the interaction and boundaries between a government’s duty to protect human rights and the corporate responsibility of telecommunications companies to respect human rights.