The Global Network Initiative (GNI), a multistakeholder initiative that brings together 85 leading information and communication technology (ICT) companies, civil society organizations, academics, and investors, is deeply concerned by recent efforts from governments to ban or otherwise eliminate access to digital communications platforms.

Company handling of user data and curation of digital content are important and sometimes sensitive issues. As set out in international human rights law and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), governments have a duty to protect the human rights of people in their jurisdiction, and companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, including in the ways they respond to government demands, pressures, and restrictions. GNI members’ commit to employ protections with respect to personal information in all countries where they operate and to take steps to protect the rights of their users when faced with government efforts to access user data. We recognize and appreciate the critical role that these commitments play in preserving privacy rights, and encourage all companies in the ICT sector to adopt the practices detailed in the GNI Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy and the corresponding Implementation Guidelines.

When governments have legitimate concerns about the impacts and conduct of digital platforms, including the ways companies handle and share data, they should use the authorities granted to them through democratically passed laws to push for greater clarity and transparency on companies’ practices, including regarding potential data access by foreign governments. If these concerns cannot be resolved, governments may take proportionate actions in response, ensuring that those actions do not unnecessarily impact freedom of expression, privacy, or other human rights. Governments can also model clearer guidance for public and private actors on these matters, informed by multistakeholder engagement and transparent processes for deliberation, and rooted in international human rights law.  Although non-democratic states have long taken drastic, sometimes ultra vires measures to block entire communications services/platforms, GNI is troubled by recent efforts by democratic states to completely ban the use of digital communications platforms, which pose significant human rights risks and are likely to have global ramifications.

Examples of such bans include repeated instances of far-reaching mobile app bans in India, and efforts by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to block access to Wikipedia. In addition, there have been reports of growing momentum in the U.S. Congress to issue legislation authorizing a ban on downloads of the Tik Tok app and prohibiting business with the parent company, ByteDance, which poses a troubling precedent. Governments should not ban applications in which individuals express themselves, access diverse and reliable news, or may share information contrary to the government’s views, without clear justification in line with the principles of legality, legitimacy, and necessity. In GNI’s years of advocacy on network disruptions, we have seen many instances of governments’ pushing for wholesale blocking of digital communications platforms during significant political moments, undermining their human rights commitments.

Unfortunately, blocking measures like those being considered or implemented in democratic countries are likely to empower less-democratic governments to expand the use of these disproportionate measures. They also undermine the ability of democratic countries, and their allies, to counter such efforts. Wholesale blocks are likely to constrict important avenues for expression and access to information,  quash critical and underrepresented voices, conflict with the Sustainable Development Goals, limit global flow of information, and pose a troubling example as many governments and international organizations are developing new approaches to regulating increasingly fragmented online spaces.

Furthermore, such measures are unlikely to prove an effective response to stated concerns about data privacy and security. Precedent has shown that individuals are likely to seek access to applications in less secure ways, and that nefarious actors will secure access to data in less direct ways, including via third parties. GNI has long advocated for greater transparency, accountability, and oversight around laws and practices that could authorize government access to user data, including across borders. Where companies fail to meet these standards or sufficiently protect access to user data from governments, GNI encourages more proportionate responses and enforcement, rooted in human rights and prioritizing the protection of freedom of expression. Wholesale app bans without clear justification and multistakeholder dialogue and engagement fail to meet international human rights standards.

GNI continues to encourage companies across the ICT sector to follow the steps detailed in the GNI principles to protect the privacy rights of their users. Where governments have concerns about the privacy and security of digital communications platforms, we encourage them to model rights-respecting approaches and to undertake thoughtful deliberation on the potential freedom of expression impacts of any subsequent restrictions.