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Internet Shutdown – Rights vs Consequences

13.09.2019
Article from AFRIC Editorial
Globally, time spent on social networking sites surpassed time spent on e-mail tremendously and the number of social networking users astronomically surpassed the number of e-mail users. Today, social networking sites are the preferred platforms for all kinds of activities, both business and personal, and sociability has dramatically increased — albeit being a different kind of sociability.
Perhaps the most telling expression of this new freedom is the Internet’s transformation of socio-political practices. Messages no longer flow solely from the few to the many, with little interactivity. Now, messages also flow from the many to the many, multimodally and interactively.

By disintermediating government and corporate control of communication, horizontal communication networks have created a new landscape of social and political change. This led to increased intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, to exert control over the flow of information which caught attention of the world as watchdogs and civil groups proponents bordering their concerns on violation of human rights, repression trend and abuse of vested powers by the powers that would. Internet shutdowns have become one of the defining tools of government repression in the 21st century — not just in developing countries, but in a growing number of countries, mainly in Asia and Africa, that are seeking to quash dissent.

Justified?

Restrictions to Internet access are on the rise globally; barely a week goes by without news of government-mandated disruptions of Internet access. Driven largely by political and national security concerns, state-ordered Internet shutdowns are on the verge of becoming the “new normal”.

In most cases, authorities do not disclose the reasons for the disruption, leaving citizens and advocates to second-guess the reasons for the shutdown. When authorities do speak up, common justifications include arguments like preserving public order and national security usually during protests and elections, or stopping rumours and dissemination of illegal content. Prevention of cheating during national exams has also been used as a reason to justify restrictions on access.

Internet shutdowns, typically used during times of civil unrest or political instability, allows officials to stifle the flow of information about government wrongdoing or to stop communication among activists, usually by ordering service providers to cut or slow their customers’ internet access.

The Indian government employs the practice more frequently than any other, most recently in Kashmir, but it is not alone: In 2018, there were at least 196 shutdowns in 25 countries, up from 75 in 24 countries in 2016, according to research by Access Now, an independent watchdog group that campaigns for internet rights. In the first half of 2019 alone, there were 114 shutdowns in 23 countries.

The blackout in Zimbabwe [early January 2019] caps off a string of internet disruptions in Africa. On 21 December 2018, the Sudanese government blocked internet access to popular social media sites to quell nationwide protests triggered by economic instability and price hikes. Gabon experienced an internet shutdown on 7 January 2019 in the wake of an attempted military coup. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) saw widespread disruption of internet connectivity following the 30 December 2018 elections. Togo, Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Chad are among other African countries that faced internet restrictions in 2018.

While authoritarian countries have long blocked some international websites that they consider subversive, like Facebook, an internet shutdown is usually a temporary measure, often wielded by governments that have historically had a less systematic approach to internet censorship.

Chinese cyber space is a world unto itself as its content is closely monitored and managed by the Communist party. In recent years, China has devoted increasingly resources to controlling content online. On the other hand, there is a growing chorus of global voices condemning the individuals and entities that order internet shutdowns, documenting how they damage societies and economies, and are at work drafting laws and strengthening norms against these disruptions.

Down fall of cyber space

Internet has always been susceptible to abuse. This is evidenced to what US President termed Fake News. Misinformation has been peddled far and wide mainly on social media platforms. The current spate of Xenophobic videos and images which were shared and forwarded on WhatsApp is a cause for concern. Social media is awash with graphic photos and videos that appear to steer tension and uncertainty in South Africa – xenophobic attacks. And many people find it a little bit hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. What complicates things further is that much of the footage shared is not fake or doctored. But its context is distorted to make it look like it shows what’s happening currently in South Africa. The impact of social meads outcry has been far reaching. This misinformation has triggered terror in Nigeria against South African entities.

The public’s opinion is easily manipulated through social media. We must understand that there are scores of websites and articles on the internet that are false and inaccurate, purely opinion, or extremely biased or slanted

Opportunity cost in the wake of Internet Shutdowns

The shutdowns do more than stunt the democratic process. They can batter whole economies and individual businesses, as well as drastically disrupt the daily life of ordinary citizens, turning the search for mobile service into a game of cat and mouse with the police and driving people across borders just to send emails for work.

Legality of internet shut downs

In most States that fell victim to shutdowns, the authorities evoke certain pieces of the Constitution to justify the shutdowns. It turns out that some shutdowns infringed the rights of the citizens as enshrined in the Constitution. A good example is the court verdict that declared the January 2019 shut down illegal. Question, were the authorisers of the shutdown brought to book?

The dilemma for any government is to maintain what it perceives as the benefits of the internet – advancing commerce and innovation – without letting technology accelerate political change. It seems that the internet continues to serve as a powerful tool for citizens seeking to advance social change and human rights. The game of cat-and-mouse continues, and there are many more mice than cats.

Article from AFRIC Editorial

Photo Credit : google image/illustration

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