Over the past several years we’ve covered a growing trend among governments in the use of Internet blocking, filtering, and full shutdowns to control free expression within their borders. Many of these “Internet blackouts” have drawn global attention when deployed during times of geopolitical unrest: For example, China frequently shuts down access to Internet services in the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang in response to protests, attracting international disapproval. Ill-fated Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak shut off Egypt’s Internet in 2011 during the peak of the Arab Spring protests in an attempt to block the communications networks used by protesters—a move that proved to be ineffective in quelling changing political tides in the country. In the United States, members of Congress have discussed the idea of an “Internet kill switch” that would grant the president authority to shut off Internet access during an emergency—an idea that, thankfully, has never gotten very far.
This worrying trend appears to have caught on among countries with poor or limited Internet connectivity in recent months, who are using Internet blockages and filtering as a means of political control despite the limited use of Internet and mobile technologies by their citizens. Each of the following cases highlights a unique set of causes, stakeholders, and outcomes of Internet shutdowns particular to nations that have poor or limited Internet connectivity, and in any instance, where the deployment of such controls violates the right to free expression. But in contexts where media access and options for alternative information sources are limited, blocking Internet access has an outsized effect.
The tiny Pacific island of Nauru has attracted international attention after issuing a ban on several Internet services including a temporary ban on Facebook, which it says it will lift as soon as the “necessary protection mechanisms" are put in place to restrict “explicit, obscene or pornographic material” online. In a press release announcing the ban, it claimed the decision was months in the making. In addition to banning Facebook, the government will be permanently blocking access to sites it claims display pornography, especially those featuring children.
Yet while the restrictions are ostensibly in the name of protecting Nauru’s Christian values, opposition members of Parliament claim they are really designed to prevent the free flow of information about asylum seekers currently detained on Nauru, who sought to seek refuge in Australia. Currently, about 1,000 asylum seekers are being held in detention centers in Nauru under an agreement with Australia, which has paid Nauru almost $29 million in visa fees to keep them on the island. The refugees have reported deplorable conditions in detainment: poor medical treatment has led to the deterioration of their physical and mental health, pregnant women have been forced to create makeshift toilets and wear men's clothes, and women and children have undergone violent sexual assault.
Under recently-passed amendments to section 244A of Nauru’s Criminal Code, the asylum seekers could face jail time for protesting their conditions if their statements are deemed “likely to threaten national defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health.” The UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, David Kaye, criticized the law by saying it could “unduly restrict” free expression.
Nauru has made other moves recently to restrict the flow of information from the island: Local news reports have been heavily restricted by the imposition of an $8,000 application fee for any journalist seeking a press visa to report from Nauru. According to former President Sprent Dabwido, this reflects paranoia by Nauru’s current president about independent media scrutiny: “We’ve seen what he’s done to our local media by taking away its independence and turning it into his personal mouthpiece,” he told the Guardian. “When he finds he can’t do that with outside media, he refuses them entry, or simply won’t respond to their telephone inquiries.”
The effect of these measures has made Facebook a particularly important element of Nauru’s media landscape, and an important source for obtaining and disseminating news on the island. In response, a Facebook spokesperson issued a statement saying, “We believe that restricting access to a free and open internet deprives people of important economic and social opportunities and choices, and hope that access will be restored soon.” A group of 11 human rights and advocacy organizations also called on the Nauruan government to restore full access to the open Internet and to provide an adequate remedy for the blocking of Internet services.
The East African nation of Burundi began blocking access to certain Internet services as early as April 2015 in response to violent protests that followed the announcement that President Pierre Nkurunziza would seek a third term in office. Beginning on April 28, journalists and users reported trouble accessing WhatsApp, Viber, Twitter, Tango, and Facebook over their cell phones, though these services remained available over Wi-Fi and fixed line Internet services. An anonymous telecoms source told the APF that telecommunications regulator ARCT ordered operators to block mobile access to social networks and messaging services.
Though the ban on services is only partial, it targets the majority of Burundi’s Internet users who overwhelmingly access the Internet over their mobile devices. Still, access to the Internet is only available to 1.3% of Burundi’s population, according to the ITU’s 2013 figures. Potentially more damaging were attacks and threats made against five radio stations and one newspaper in Burundi, reportedly in an attempt to prevent news of the protests from spreading. Some of the attacks on radio stations were from pro- and anti-government protesters seeking to silence the voices of media outlets they see as oppositional to their political beliefs, though the involvement of a regulatory body indicates some level of government involvement.
In response to the attacks, a group of Burundian journalists, media directors, and foreign diplomats marched on World Press Freedom Day in solidarity with their colleagues. The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned the attacks, and Salim Ahmed Salim, former prime minister of neighboring country Tanzania, called on President Nkurunziza to remove the restrictions on the media and Internet. Advocacy group, Access, also called on UN Special Rapporteurs Maina Kiai, Faith Pansy Tlakula, and David Kaye to address the growing use of network interference in Burundi and other countries over the past several months by declaring Internet shutdowns to be a violation of the right to freedom of expression.
Yemen’s already-weak communications infrastructure has been overtaxed due to frequent attacks and violence in the country, leading to increasingly-frequent Internet blackouts as the situation becomes more dire. Yemen has a centralized and outdated infrastructure with only one government provider, making it especially vulnerable. Beginning in early April 2015, we saw reports of significant disruptions to access and outages of the Djibouti cable (one of two submarine fiber cables providing Internet to Yemen). The outages were limited in duration—the first one only 90 minutes—indicating that, unlike the previous two cases, the blackouts are more likely due to power or system failures rather than purposeful attacks.
In early May, the Public Telecommunication Establishment reported its stock of diesel was depleted and that it anticipated telephone lines and Internet outages. The Post and Telecommunications Union head said Aden, Lahj, Al Dale, and Abyan would be the first cities to experience a complete communication blackout. As of mid-May, phone and Internet traffic was down by over 30%, and the number of peak-time Internet users dropped by 60%; both of these numbers continue to grow. Internet and telecommunications services were cut entirely in Crater and Mualla among other districts.
Finally, in late May, users in Yemen reported limited or no access to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube raising fears that the websites may be blocked—though it’s unclear whether this is due to a technical failure or censorship. Access to Facebook and YouTube was available in some regions while not in others, but Twitter could be reached only through a VPN nationwide. TeleYemen confirmed they are not responsible for blocking content, while some users have expressed fears the sites are being blocked by the Saudi government or Houthi rebels (though these appear to be rumors).
As in Nauru, this may have a negative effect on journalists’ ability to cover events in Yemen, as well as the capacity of groups to document abuses of human rights, as media have come to rely on the social media accounts of local activists in areas where they cannot be physically. Given the dangerous situation on the ground, this has the potential to result in a near-information blackout in the country.