As Pakistan was preparing to go to the polls on July 25, Digital Rights Foundation, Access Now, NetBlocks, Internet Yetu and others concerned about free expression called on Pakistan’s caretaker government to protect the integrity of mobile networks and Internet connection across Pakistan.
Within the past two years, Pakistan has had more than 19 Internet shutdowns, according to Access Now’s Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP). Using public safety and national security as the rationale, Pakistan has shut down the internet and mobile networks just when access to information is most necessary. Free and fair elections depend on free and open public discourse.
Internet Yetu co-signed an open letter to the Election Commission, EU Election Observer Mission and Pakistan’s Caretaker government. The letter asked that they ensure the Internet remains on across Pakistan during the election and beyond.
THE OPEN LETTER
Re: Keeping the Internet on during Pakistan’s Elections
We are writing to urgently request that you ensure the stability and openness of the internet. Pakistan has a troubling history of shutting down the Internet and has disrupted connectivity as recently as last week in Lahore. On behalf of the more than 150 organizations from over 50 countries that make up the #KeepitOn Community, we implore you to keep the Internet on during the upcoming elections.
Internet shutdowns harm human rights and economies
Research shows that internet shutdowns and violence go hand in hand. Shutdowns disrupt the free flow of information and create a cover of darkness that shields human rights abuses from public scrutiny. Journalists and media workers cannot contact sources, gather information, or file stories without digital communications tools. Justified for various reasons, shutdowns cut off access to vital information, e-commerce, and emergency services, plunging whole communities into fear. Disruptions also destabilize the internet’s power to support small business livelihoods and to drive economic development. A 2016 study by the Brookings Institution, a prominent think tank, revealed that shutdowns drained $2.4 billion from the global economy between 2015 and 2016.
The open internet has fostered unprecedented creativity, innovation, and access to information and to other kinds of social, economic, cultural, and political opportunities across the globe. The technical means used to block access to information online often dangerously undermine the stability and resiliency of the internet. Internet shutdowns must never be allowed to become the new normal.
Access to information and the free flow of information are essential during elections. The Pakistani government has vowed to hold a free and fair election, and extending access to the global internet is crucial to uphold this commitment.
Internet shutdowns violate international Law
A growing body of findings and resolutions hold that intentional disruptions to the internet violate international law. In July 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed, by consensus, a resolution on freedom of expression and the internet with unambiguous language on internet shutdowns and other restrictions on freedom of expression online. Resolution A/HRC/RES/32/13:
condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law and calls on all States to refrain from and cease such measures.
The Council sent a clear message that the blocking and throttling of networks, applications, and services that facilitate human rights is unacceptable behavior.
Experts from the United Nations, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Organization of American States (OAS), and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), also issued an historic statement declaring that Internet “kill switches” can never be justified under international human rights law, even in times of conflict.
The UN Human Rights Committee, the official interpreter of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, emphasizes in its General Comment no. 34 that restrictions on speech online must be strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate purpose.
Shutdowns, by contrast, disproportionately impact all users, and unnecessarily restrict access to information and emergency services communications during crucial moments. Shutdowns are neither necessary to, nor effective at, achieving a legitimate aim, as they block the spread of information, contribute to confusion and disorder, and obstruct public safety. Shutdowns are neither necessary to, nor effective at, achieving a legitimate aim, as they often spread confusion and encourage more people to join public demonstrations.
We respectfully request that you use the important positions of your good offices to:
- Ensure that the Internet, including social media,remains on across Pakistan.
- Publicly declare your commitment to keep the internet on, and to notify the public of anydisruptions
- Encourage telecommunications and internet services providers to respect human rightsthrough public disclosures on policies and practices impacting users.
—End of Letter
The Internet and Mobile services were largely accessible in Pakistan during voting day. The #KeepitOn Campaign played a huge role in ensuring the Internet was kept open and secure. Internet Yetu was one of the organizations that pressured the Pakistan Government to keep the Internet on. To learn more about our involvement in the Campaign, read this article.
You can join the campaign and take action on the Access Now Website. You can also take to social media and use the hashtag #KeepitOn.