On October 20th, the government of the Republic of Congo intentionally shut down internet service in order to repress a demonstration taking place in response to a constitutional referendum extending term limits and allowing Denis Sasou N’Guesso to run for an additional term. Police injured seven protesters, five by gunfire and two by tear gas canisters, according to a hospital administrator quoted by ABC News. Six protesters were also injured the weekend prior in Point-Noire.
This isn’t the first time that governments have intentionally shut down mobile internet and SMS with the goal of repressing reports of government abuse against peaceful demonstrators. Peter Micek, Senior Policy Counsel at the digital rights organization Access, says that there’s a pattern that some governments have of shutting down internet during politically sensitive times, like the Sudanese government did in 2013 during a protest over fuel subsidies. Turkey has also tried to block access to Twitter.
“Shutdowns precede really egregious repression in a lot of cases,” Micek says. In some cases, the shutdowns happen on the morning of planned demonstrations, and are followed by the troops beating and even killing protesters.“It does often seem like they’re timing the shutdowns in order to perhaps repress street demonstrations and stop people from organizing via mobile phone, but also to perhaps keep media and foreign journalists from gathering information and to stop people on the ground from disseminating information about what’s taking place,” he added.
Governments aren’t always quick to accept responsibility for the internet or mobile shutdowns. “The governments run the gamut between denying that any disruption has occurred and often blaming it on technical problems or just congestion on the network, or sometimes they get more creative. I’ve seen the Sudanese government say a fire at a network facility resulted in the outage, but that doesn’t explain why five other ISPs also went down at the same time,” Micek said. Governments rarely fess up on the record, and in fact sometimes silence telecom companies through court orders or intimidation.
But this isn’t always in response to protestors. In Pakistan, the government shuts down global networks during public holidays. Iraq recently shut down internet for a few hours to prevent students from using their mobile phones to cheat on national exams. Shutting down internet access or even just mobile data has all sorts of negative repercussions beyond stifling protest and the spread of information–it’s also essential for calling emergency services, for example. Experts at the United Nations have stated that internet kill switches “can never be justified under human rights law.”
The good news is that there are a lot of ways for telecommunications companies to fight back. Although governments sometimes have laws stating that they can, in fact, shut down internet or mobile for national security reasons, Micek points out that negotiating with the government is possible, “whether it’s requiring a written order signed by the proper judicial authority requiring the duration of the shutdown to be specified, trying to limit it to a certain geographical area whether the government sees a threat.” In fact, four telecommunication companies (Moov, Azur, Télécel, and Orange) jointly pushed back against the Central African Republic’s shutdown of SMS in July 2014, and were eventually successful. Here’s hoping other telcos follow their lead.