The growing trend of intentional shutdowns of the Internet and mobile networks threaten Internet freedom. According to estimates, some 25 governments on almost every continent have intentionally prevented or disrupted access to such networks more than fifty times since the beginning of 2016, a rate of at least once every six days.
The United States earlier this year joined the consensus at the United Nations Human Rights Council in passing a resolution condemning intentional disruptions of access to or dissemination of information online, in violation of human rights law. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski noted that this Internet freedom resolution echoes a Freedom Online Conference joint statement from 2011 that labeled “mandatory blocking” of social networking technologies and platforms to be “an extreme measure” strictly subject to human rights law.
These network disruptions have a major economic impact. A Brookings Institution report estimates Ethiopia suffered an $8.5 million loss for an April Internet shutdown. More recently, in October, Ethiopia initiated a new shutdown as part of the government’s ongoing state of emergency, which may have cost the Ethiopian economy just under half-a-million U.S. dollars a day in lost GDP.
It is particularly alarming that elections-related Internet shutdowns are becoming increasingly common. In February, the government of Uganda ordered mobile phone and Internet service providers to block access to social media sites on the day of contested national elections. Weeks later, the government of the Republic of Congo ordered a nationwide shutdown of mobile phone networks in the lead up to national elections.
But not all the news is bad. In August, Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama publicly reaffirmed Ghana’s commitment to protect freedom of expression online and refrain from restricting social media use in the lead up to national elections in December.
The United States government commends the initiative taken by Ghana to reaffirm its support of human rights online. The U.S. urges the government of Ethiopia to follow suit and restore access to the global Internet for all its citizens. Likewise, all governments must protect and promote the rights to freedom of expression and association as guaranteed under international human rights commitments.