The novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic is causing unprecedented impacts for health, the economy, and public life around the world. As governments, corporations, institutions, and individuals attempt to secure and share up to date and accurate information on government assistance, essential services, stay at home orders, and remote work, they are increasingly dependent on services enabled by information and communication networks.

The Global Network Initiative (GNI) recognizes and appreciates that many governments are using such networks to communicate vital health-related information and engage with citizens on a range of essential services. To lessen the negative impacts of the pandemic, ensure the public’s access to information, and facilitate the development and application of new, constructive, and inclusive solutions in fields such as healthcare, education, and participatory governance, it is important to understand how government-mandated network disruptions and intentional degradation of access can undermine these goals.

GNI has noted the ways in which government-mandated network disruptions may impact on human rights and media freedom and advocated against specific instances. As we have pointed out, among other consequences, government-mandated network disruptions can negatively impact human rights, conflict with the Sustainable Development Goals, cause economic harm, and increase insecurity. They can also make it more difficult for journalists to access government information and conduct independent reporting, thus inhibiting media freedom and the public’s access to information. The impact of disruptions is often greater on vulnerable groups, including women and girls.

As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression recently explained, these concerns have only become more acute in the context of the ongoing pandemic. Lack of access to stable channels of communication disrupts and delays critical emergency services and threatens people’s ability to receive the treatment they need, especially in vulnerable communities. It also prevents access to vital and accurate information about the pandemic. Ultimately, this leads to more lives lost.

Government-mandated network disruptions and intentional degradation of access affect the ability of millions of people around the world to connect reliably to network services. To maximize the availability and utility of information and communication technologies, GNI calls on governments to meet international standards for human rights when weighing any decision that could result in the disruption or degradation of networks or network services, or illegal discrimination in their delivery. Where network disruptions are in place, governments should move expeditiously to rescind them. The GNI observes the recent decision of the Ethiopian government to end, after three months, a government-mandated network disruption in the Wollega region.

Governments should also work collaboratively with network providers and other stakeholders to increase the availability and accessibility of high-speed information and communication networks, regardless of the method of delivery (mobile, fixed, satellite, etc.). In the event of technical, infrastructure failures, governments and network providers should act with transparency, and inform the public as swiftly as possible.