Internet shutdowns are a growing threat to democracy. What can be done about it?

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15 March 2022
Authors
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Ben Graham Jones
Theme
Commentary
Internet shutdowns are a growing threat to democracy. What can be done about it?
There is a growing trend towards the use of internet shutdowns around elections. It is vital that the international elections community takes coordinated pre-emptive action to ensure that internet shutdowns do not become an established or tolerated international norm.  

The issue of Internet shutdowns has risen to greater prominence with recent measures taken by the Russian Federation to restrict digital rights. In March, Russia blocked Facebook domestically, whilst its military has targeted communications towers in Ukraine. As elections professionals, we observe with concern that this is not simply a unique characteristic of the crisis in Ukraine, but the continuation of information politics by other means. There is a growing trend towards the use of Internet shutdowns at moments of political uncertainty, with elections emerging as a key moment of risk. 

It is vital that the international elections community now takes coordinated pre-emptive action to ensure that internet shutdowns do not become an established or tolerated international norm.  

Shutdowns stifle society

On the eve of the 2021 Presidential election, Ugandans opening Facebook to check out what each candidate had to offer were faced with a problem. The government had blocked the internet. Citizens and civil society groups were unable to use conventional methods to share information, organise protest against rights violations, or access reliable factcheckers. The shutdown continued for four days after the results. Businesses struggled to function, with shutdown monitor Netblocks estimating the total cost to the Ugandan economy rising above £10m.  

When countries shut down the Internet partially or fully, it has at least four key consequences for the election.  

Firstly, it prevents the election commission from disseminating the results of the vote. This opens the door to disinformation and false claims about the result.  

Secondly, it prevents civil society organisations from sharing fact-based information on the election. This can include messaging designed to placate tensions, or rebuttal of disinformation that may be circulating in the tense electoral environment.  

Thirdly, it stops political parties and observers from checking the official results by comparing the announced results with the total votes observed by their representatives within polling stations. This process, known as parallel vote tabulation, helps verify the results of an election. Internet shutdowns impede it by preventing transmission of the verified results, reducing citizens’ overall confidence in the process.  

Fourthly, it prevents citizens from exercising their democratic rights to discuss, debate, and hold their leaders to account. Organising protest becomes much more difficult when you cannot even make contact with other citizens. 

Each of these effects help erode not just the credibility of an election, but the trust, functionality, and strength of the citizenry. In short, shutdowns stifle society. 

Human rights apply online too

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds”. States seem to agree: 167 of the world’s countries are party to the agreement. In 2013, the world’s countries also came together to proclaim that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”. There could not be a clearer basis for the illegitimacy of Internet shutdowns.  

Yet every year, states party to the ICCPR nonetheless restrict their citizens’ access to the Internet. In the first five months of 2021 alone, Access Now documented 50 shutdowns in 21 countries. 

Even when states do not impose a shutdown, concerns that they might impedes the process. Political parties have to spend time and money on backup means of communication for election day, in case WhatsApp goes down. Civil society groups reallocate their scarce resources towards lobbying against a potential shutdown, rather than towards voter education or pacifying messaging. Businesses come to see the election as a major inconvenience. 

This is why it is not enough to criticise shutdowns after they happen. They cannot be considered within the realm of acceptable action from states enjoying full respect and membership of the global community.

Elections professionals are uniquely placed to act

Elections professionals are neutral about who wins elections in the countries where they serve. However, we must never be neutral when it comes to promoting international democratic standards. The possibility of a shutdown should form a central part of the preparations made to safeguard the democratic space in advance of a vote. 

As elections professionals, we need to be prepared long in advance to step in with a swift, coordinated statement drawing the world’s attention to the violation of freedom of expression taking place. Disparate statements serve only to dilute our voices – we must join together in swift, unified condemnation.  

It is precisely because shutdowns silence voices within the country’s civil society that the international community must speak loudly. Speaking out is neither about virtue-signalling nor quietly tempered declarations. It is about pronouncing clearly that regressive behaviour will not be tolerated within the community of nations. Precise, swift and coordinated messaging can help banish this emerging norm firmly from the table of acceptability. Time is ticking, for as more electoral activity moves online each year, the impact of shutdowns will only increase. 

This means being prepared long before any such shutdown takes place. Election observation missions must establish the coordination links needed to swiftly approve a statement. A plan for disseminating a statement across the world’s media should be in place. We cannot be caught off guard at the last moment, when every second counts to raise the stakes on the host government to overturn the restrictive measures and restore liberty to their people.  

The quicker that evidence-backed voices with authority and reach can pronounce on a shutdown, the quicker pressure can mobilise for the restoration of fundamental rights. 

We must also bolster resilience to shutdowns within at-risk countries, by ensuring journalists and civil society organisations we work with have VPNs in place, and the know-how to ascertain the extent of a shutdown. 

Shutdown forecasting and mitigation should form a regular part of the preparation undertaken by professionals engaged in electoral assistance, observation, and management at every level, in contexts where its occurrence is a possibility.  

Yet it is a sad fact that by the time a shutdown has been imposed, in some ways it is already too late. Much of the damage has already been done. It may be a less consequential step for a regime to keep a shutdown in place than to impose one in the first place. 

It is therefore imperative that elections professionals do everything in their power to avert shutdowns from happening in the first place.  

This means: 

  • Making it clear both in public and behind the scenes that an Internet shutdown is totally unacceptable from the perspective of international partners.  
  • Encouraging publication of telecommunications licence agreements long before the vote, so citizens can scrutinise their provisions.  
  • Risk-assessing the likelihood of a shutdown in order to prioritise resources between multiple overlapping elections. 
  • Commissioning research into which factors are most likely to predict an Internet shutdown during an election, research which is sadly lacking at present, to enable such risk assessments to take place. 
  • Hearing the voices of signatories of the open letters that Access Now and the global #keepiton coalition release around election time when they perceive a risk. 
  • According due weight to the impact of Internet shutdowns in our statements, press conferences, and reports.

Have electoral internet shutdowns become a norm? Not yet, but we are not far from it. Positively, as an international community of elections practitioners, we are capable of taking actions that decrease the likelihood and damage of shutdowns. It is right and proper that we take the steps required to uphold this responsibility.