Published 1 February 2021 at Thomson Reuters Foundation, here.
Within a week of seizing power in a 1 February coup, the Myanmar military has already orchestrated two nation-wide internet shutdowns.
Amid the rolling internet shutdowns, the Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications (MOTC) issued orders on 3 February forcing telecommunication operators to block access to Facebook. This order was expanded two days later to include Twitter and Instagram. Many have been forced to rely on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to access these platforms, and like clockwork the authorities have already blocked over 1,000 known VPN addresses this week.
Around the world, repressive governments are increasingly turning to internet shutdowns and disruptions to silence critics, quell online coordination of civil resistance, and obstruct journalists and human rights defenders from documenting and communicating. Network disruptions are often violations of the rights of free expression and access to information under international human rights law, and have been condemned unequivocally by the U.N. Human Rights Council. They cut off loved ones from communicating, have devastating impacts on local economies, limit the sharing of information concerning elections, and can obstruct the delivery of needed medical or humanitarian supplies.
Web monitor NetBlocks reports that since 2019 at least 35 countries have blocked access to the internet or social media platforms, including hundreds of documented cases in every region of the world. In 2020 alone, according to a recent study, 21 countries shutdown or throttled internet and social media for a total of 27,165 hours, a 49 percent increase over the previous year, affecting some 268 million people. Meanwhile, 29 percent of disruptions were associated with restricting the freedom of assembly and at least 12 percent targeted media freedom.
Since 2019, Myanmar authorities have increasingly resorted to such restrictions to control information and hide abuses. On 20 June 2019, the MOTC ordered mobile internet services blocked in eight townships in Rakhine and Chin States, where acts of genocide have previously been reported. Before 4G mobile access in the affected townships was restored last week, this was among the world’s longest internet shutdowns.
In April 2020, the MOTC directed internet service operators to block 221 websites, including ethnic news media that have reported on human rights abuses and misconduct by the Myanmar military. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar panned the order as deplorable, yet authorities followed in August by further blocking the human rights campaign Justice for Myanmar’s website.
The recent post-coup wave of shutdowns and disruptions is an unsettling escalation of a serious underlying problem.
As noted, Myanmar is not alone in weaponizing shutdowns and targeted activities to prevent or disrupt access to the internet in violation of international law. Addressing these concerns in Myanmar will need global coordination.
The U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights states that businesses should ‘seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations.’ As such, Telecom operators working in countries where shutdowns and targeted disruptions are common could start doing more.
These include a commitment to transparency and redress. Telecoms should develop and make accessible detailed policies about how they handle network shutdown and disruption orders. The same way in which the Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Accountability in Content Moderation call on companies to publish the number of posts or accounts removed, telecom operators should reveal the number network disruption orders they receive, and their legal basis. When resisting abusive orders fails, they should strive to make State directives public.
Arguably, as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts, telecom operators could also seek more substantive redress mechanisms for individuals impacted by network disconnection.
As long as rights abusers continue to engage in these practices, civil society needs access to circumvention tools and other technologies. Mesh network messaging applications like Bridgefy and Briar, which allow peer-to-peer communication networks during mobile data outages, and Tella, which is specifically designed with documentation during shutdowns in mind, are good examples but they have their limits. Furthermore, VPNs, which help accessing blocked websites and afford greater security online, aren’t always easily available or affordable.
Greater research and investment for the development of open source tools for safe/encrypted offline documentation and communication could provide new technologies for civil society with greater functionality for use during internet disruptions. Of course, investment into such tools must eschew the surveillance capitalism model and ensure user privacy rights.
Finally, that the trend in internet shutdowns and disruptions is increasing shows how precariously vulnerable the fundamental architecture of the internet is to abusive interference. Although such collaboration is increasing, we still need greater global coordination between the human rights community, policy makers, and technologists to fix these problems.