Regionalisation of telecommunications

COMMENTARY – “Digital activism has been and remains a vital driver of change around the world, particularly in societies that lack political rights and press freedom.”1 The importance of internet access and acquisition of information online should not be underestimated. In fact, they represent important tools to be adopted for the implementation of fundamental human rights; for instance, the right to freedom of expression. What happens when Internet Wi-Fi connection is blocked permanently or temporarily? What if a particular area is cut out from the rest of the country?

Anglais

Source: Flickr

Internet connection and human rights

Wi-Fi connection and Internet access are fundamental elements of our lives. Not only we acquire information and we communicate through the Internet, we also share every moment of our lives on online platforms. Internet connection has also become extremely useful for human rights. Through the use of new technologies, in fact, freedom of expression and freedom of information as well as the freedom to association and assembly can be easily implemented. Moreover, as the United Nations (UN) pointed out, “access to information on the Internet facilitates vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education globally, thereby being an important tool to facilitate the promotion of the right to education.”2

Unfortunately, access to Internet has become problematic in many countries. The UN has expressed deep concerns over the adoption of measures aimed to intentionally disrupt access to information online, in violation of international human rights law.3 For instance, China – a country with a long tradition of Internet blockage and disruption of access to information – has developed a technology, called the “Great Firewall of China”, used to monitor the activity of internet users and block telecommunications.4 The blockage of websites such as Google or Facebook in China is well known. Now, things are getting even worse. Amnesty reported the incarceration of Internet dissidents such as Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist imprisoned for 10 years after sending an email to a pro-democracy website in the U.S. regarding the 15th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square.5

Moreover, Human Rights Watch recently announced that “the Chinese government is set to adopt the Cybersecurity Law, a regressive measure that strengthens censorship, surveillance, and other controls over the Internet.”6 The “spreading of rumors” about natural disasters has also been criminalised, and new rules requiring app providers to keep user logs for 60 days to reduce the spread of “illegal information” have been issued. The Cybersecurity Law is the last initiative of the Chinese government after the State Security law, the Counterterrorism Law, and the Foreign NGO Management Law. “Together, these laws wrongly promote the idea that peaceful criticism against the government is a threat to state security”7 evidently threatening human rights.


No Wi-Fi available? Access denied?

The dangers of temporary Internet blockages are just as evident as the permanent ones. Already in 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank LaRue, highlighted how many “governments [are] restricting, controlling, manipulating and censoring Internet content without any legal basis.”8 LaRue suggested that, because of the potential of the Internet, governments have increased restrictions on Internet use through blocking Wi-Fi connection out of fear of mobilization and dissemination of information. This trend is fostered by government concerns over the Islamic States’ (ISIS) growing influence online and the propensity for the terrorist group’s propaganda to inspire attacks. In fact, France considered blocking internet access following the Paris attacks in 2015 and “Australia also passed a law in 2014 allowing the government to expand online surveillance and media censorship in an effort to boost national security.”9


In 2011 violent upheavals took place in Algiers as well as in the main cities of Algeria. In that occasion, the government was blamed by protesters for preventing access to Internet providers in an attempt to prevent public gatherings, and thus violating the right to freedom of assembly.10 As the Telegraph reported, Mohammed Said, an activist based in Algiers, said: “It’s clear [that the government is] getting at the internet. Facebook is their first target – they are cutting off accounts. Internet use is impossible at the moment.”11 The Algerian government denied that access to Internet had been blocked. Moreover, no evidence of disruption from abroad was visible. However, a spokesman for Algerian internet monitor Remyses said: “It is possible that the blockages of the internet were not visible from abroad, according to the Iranian 'strangulation' model or by the cutting of domestic connections.”12

More recently, Turkey has also been under the spotlight for internet disruption and for the implementation of rigid surveillance and controlling policies. After many protests, “Turkey’s ruling party has responded to criticism of its policies by escalating Internet censorship and prosecuting social media users,”13 said Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher at Human Rights Watch. In particularly delicate moments, the Turkish government hasn’t refrained from blocking online platforms such as Twitter and YouTube. For instance, in the period before the March 30 municipal elections, authorities blocked access to these social platforms which have been used to organise protests and call for reform.14 Now, “the expanded surveillance powers may feed further abusive prosecutions and erode the rule of law”15, Human Rights Watch said. Notably, many individuals have filed complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to challenge the government’s blocking of different websites. Importantly, in 2012 the ECtHR ruled in Ahmet Yıldırım v. Turkey16 that the blocking of Google violated the right to freedom of expression. The violation of human rights couldn’t be more evident than this.

 


Regionalisation of Wi-Fi

The practice of blockage of Internet access, whether permanent or sporadic, clearly amounts to a violation of human rights. Interestingly, the regionalisation of this disruption can be highly controversial and subtly dangerous for a country. Namely, if Internet and Wi-Fi access is blocked in a specific area of a country, the population is automatically divided. A new region is created and the alienation of a portion of the population is taking place. The dangerous links between this practice and the exercise and implementation of other human rights is also evidently put forward. Freedom of movement, freedom of association and assembly as well as freedom of information are clearly violated as a consequence of this process of regionalisation of internet blockage.


Bahrain is a country that faced this practice but which is rarely considered in relation to the issues of lack of Internet access and Wi-Fi connection. During the 33rd Human Rights Council, however, a side event was dedicated to the discussion of these issues.17 During the event, it was highlighted that in Bahrain there are serious problems of Internet connection and Wi-Fi access, especially during the evening, and all activities are clearly monitored by the authorities. Without the possibility of connecting with other people, there are no chances for citizens to organise public assemblies and gatherings since the authorities fear the possibility of upheavals within the country. Moreover, freedom of movement is completely disregarded in the country, in violation of Art. 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Art. 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Erin Kilbride, Media Coordinator at Front Line Defenders, focused on Diraz as the most problematic village amongst all the other towns in Bahrain. Importantly, she referred to women and children as the most affected in this situation of restrictions of freedom of movement and liberty of assembly. Often, she explained, women are leaving their villages or family households to join the husband’s home, which can be at points far away from their hometown. Thus, considering the difficulties of traveling, women and their children often struggle to find a way to keep in touch with their relatives and end up being alienated from the rest of society. Finally, Ms Kilbride mentioned the economic repercussions that Bahrain is facing. Especially in Diraz, many businesses have been damaged in the village and the quality of life has been heavily affected.

The example of Bahrain, a country that is not discussed enough in the international panorama, should shed light on the issue of Internet access and the problems connected to the disruption of access to information online. The problem of regionalisation of Internet blockage, especially, should not be underestimated particularly if we consider the violations of other human rights clearly connected to this process.



1 Freedom House (2015) “Freedom on the Net - Privatizing Censorship, Eroding Privacy.” Available at: https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/FH_FOTN_2015Report.pdf
2 United Nations (2016) Resolution “The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet”, General Assembly, 32nd Human Rights Council. Available at: https://www.article19.org/data/files/Internet_Statement_Adopted.pdf
3Ibidem
4 Amnesty International (2016) “Freedom of Expression and the Internet – Internet Censorship.” Available at: http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/censorship-and-free-speech/int...
5Ibidem
6 Human Rights Watch (2016) “China: Abusive Cybersecurity Law Set to be Passed.” Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/11/06/china-abusive-cybersecurity-law-set-...
7Ibidem
8 COSGROVE Maureen (2011) “UN warns Internet restrictions violate human rights”, Jurist. Available at: http://www.jurist.org/paperchase/2011/06/un-warns-internet-restrictions-...
9 WILLIAMS C. Lauren (2016) “Disrupting Internet Access Is A Human Rights Violation, UN Says”, Think Progress. Available at: https://thinkprogress.org/disrupting-internet-access-is-a-human-rights-v...
10 RAMDANI Nabila (2011) “Algeria tried to block internet and Facebook as protest mounted”, The Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/algeria/8...
11Ibidem
12Ibidem
13 Human Rights Watch (2016) “China: Abusive Cybersecurity Law Set to be Passed.” Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/11/06/china-abusive-cybersecurity-law-set-...
14Ibidem
15Ibidem
16Ahmet Yıldırım v. Turkey, Application no. 3111/10. Available at: http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng#{%22itemid%22:[%22001-115705%22]}
17 United Nations, 33rd Human Rights Council Side event: “Human rights in Bahrain”, Salle XXVII, Palais des Nations, 16.09.2016.



MR – Research Assistant at CIPADH 


Webography

Amnesty International (2016) “Freedom of Expression and the Internet – Internet Censorship.” Available at: http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/censorship-and-free-speech/int...
Ahmet Yıldırım v. Turkey, Application no. 3111/10. Available at: http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng#{%22itemid%22:[%22001-115705%22]}
BBC News (2016) “Algeria blocks social media to beat exam cheats.” Available at:
COSGROVE Maureen (2011) “UN warns Internet restrictions violate human rights”, Jurist. Available at: http://www.jurist.org/paperchase/2011/06/un-warns-internet-restrictions-...
Courrier International (2016) “Erdogan continue sa vague répressive.” Available at: http://www.courrierinternational.com/article/turquie-erdogan-continue-sa...
Freedom House (2015) “Freedom on the Net - Privatizing Censorship, Eroding Privacy.” Available at: https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/FH_FOTN_2015Report.pdf
Human Rights Watch (2016) “China: Abusive Cybersecurity Law Set to be Passed.” Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/11/06/china-abusive-cybersecurity-law-set-...
Human Rights Watch (2014) “Turkey: Internet Freedom, Rights in Sharp Decline.” Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/09/02/turkey-internet-freedom-rights-sharp...
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966. Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx
RAMDANI Nabila (2011) “Algeria tried to block internet and Facebook as protest mounted”, The Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/algeria/8...
United Nations, 33rd Human Rights Council Side event: “Human rights in Bahrain”, Salle XXVII, Palais des Nations, 16.09.2016.
United Nations (2016) Resolution “The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet”, General Assembly, 32nd Human Rights Council. Available at: https://www.article19.org/data/files/Internet_Statement_Adopted.pdf
Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948. Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Documents/UDHR_Translations/eng.pdf
WILLIAMS C. Lauren (2016) “Disrupting Internet Access Is A Human Rights Violation, UN Says”, Think Progress. Available at: https://thinkprogress.org/disrupting-internet-access-is-a-human-rights-v...

Category: