WITNESS is engaging in a global campaign to raise awareness around Internet Shutdowns and to provide practical documentation resources for activists impacted by these issues. Learn more.

For many people in the United States, being able to connect to and utilize the internet is a crucial tool for the functioning of our day to day lives. Connectivity is often entwined with our rights like economic security, freedom of expression, right to information, education, and health.  This has heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic as schooling, access to healthcare, public health messaging, and daily necessities moved online. For activists and marginalized communities, the internet continues to be a vitally important space to organize actions, amplify and control our own narratives, expose abuses and hold those in power accountable. The United Nations affirmed the importance of being connected online by declaring internet access a basic human right in 2016. But what happens when the internet gets turned off by state actors and third parties, such as telecommunications companies, as a means to silence dissent or stop the flow of communications?

The U.S. has not yet experienced widespread shutdowns of social media platforms or telecommunications networks in response to protest, elections or social unrest. But, according to UN Special Rapporteur Clement Voule on Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, “Shutdowns have been observed in long-established democracies and more recent democracies alike, in line with broader trends of democratic recession across the world.”

Given the rise of authoritarianism in the U.S., an internet shutdown could be closer on the horizon than we might like to think. Additionally, access to the internet is prevented in other ways, such as high costs and lack of infrastructure. As countries around the world face full or partial internet shutdowns by their governments, U.S. activists can learn from the strategies being employed within movements to denounce these actions and continue to mobilize in creative ways. 

What is at stake when it comes to internet shutdowns?

Internet shutdown: ​​An intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information  – Access Now 

Internet shutdowns are used as a tactic to repress dissent, quash protests and prevent human rights documentation from getting out. The human rights impact of shutdowns can be grave and widespread. “State censorship and surveillance targeting the foundations of the internet and telecommunications infrastructure often have a [destructive] effect on everyone’s right to seek, receive and impart information,” said David Kaye, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of complexity, as millions of people around the world grapple with the illness and the potential long-term impacts of the disease. These conditions, along with limitations on peoples’ mobility and decreased availability or closures of stores, transportation services, schools, care facilities, etc. have meant that we are more reliant than ever on the internet for basic necessities and services. Internet shutdowns or slowdowns in the context of a global pandemic are detrimental to our care economies and people’s ability to meet their daily needs.

Access Now, which tracks internet shutdowns globally, reported that from January-May 2021 there were 50 documented shutdowns in 21 countries. For example, in Uganda and Congo there were shutdowns related to elections, while in Jordan, Myanmar and Cuba shutdowns were imposed during widespread protests. 

Shutdowns are usually imposed by governments, often working with third party service providers who turn off or slow access to services or collect and retain sensitive user data. While some shutdowns turn off the infrastructure entirely, there are also instances where internet speeds are throttled (intentionally slowed) or single platforms are banned. This was the case in Nigeria when the government recently banned Twitter after the platform deleted a tweet from Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. 

Could a shutdown happen in the U.S.?

Yes. According to Jessica Rosenworcel, the acting Chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the president of the United States has broad and unchecked powers to shut down or suspend wired and wireless communications if they proclaim that there is a war, threat of war or “a disaster or national emergency”. This power is granted under Section 706 of the Communications Act of 1934. Rosenworcel, who is advocating for a renewed assessment of Section 706, bluntly states, “…if a sitting president wants to shut down the Internet or selectively cut off a social media outlet or other service, all it takes is an opinion from his attorney general that Section 706 gives him the authority to do so.”

How is access to the internet currently restricted in the U.S.?

In the United States access to the internet is limited by issues like prohibitively high costs, credit checks, lack of broadband infrastructure, and the rolling back of net neutrality protections. The frequency and scale of impact of these issues is often a question of race and class.

Photo: Lara Heintz – VICE

The FCC reports that an estimated 19 million Americans do not have access to broadband. However, numerous groups argue that this estimate is far too low and that studies often fail to look at how the issue disproportionately impacts low income areas and communities of color. 

A 2016 report, “Digital Denied” by Free Press, estimated that people of color made up half of the people in the U.S. without home-internet. While many mainstream narratives point to the issue as one of rural vs. urban communities, this is not entirely the case. For example, 40% of Detroit residents lack at-home internet access, according to a study by Data Driven Detroit. Additionally, on rural reservations, Indigenous people are among the least connected communities in the country. They are 4 times as likely to lack access to standard broadband as the general population, and 1 in 5 have no Internet access. The Free Press report further explains “how lack of affordability, insufficient competition and structural racism are systematically blocking our most vulnerable communities from accessing the benefits of the internet. It’s time for researchers to refocus our efforts on exploring these intersections of affordability, access and race.” The internet is a bridge to opportunities for employment, healthcare, education, economic support, community, and advocacy. Equity must be a guiding principle in understanding and addressing the issue of marginalization that is advanced by lack of internet access.

One of the main areas where we see these structural issues at play is net neutrality. Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers should provide equal access to online content and sources without giving priority to (or charging more for) specific producers or websites. The FCC has historically viewed net neutrality favorably and in 2015 they passed major legislation supporting it. However, in 2017, Donald Trump used presidential power to appoint Ajit Pai as the chair of the FCC. Pai quickly began working to dismantle previous net neutrality rulings. Currently, although President Biden has called for the FCC to restore net neutrality rules, he has been slow to appoint a fifth FCC commissioner that could help push this forward. 

According to the ACLU, these are just some of the tangible ways the shift away from net neutrality can be felt: 

  • Sprint is slowing traffic to sites owned by their competitors, like Skype
  • Companies like AT&T are putting data caps on streaming services like Netflix, while offering unlimited streaming on services they own, like DirectTV
  • Verizon has been throttling the network traffic of customers like County Fire, the department in charge of responding to California’s wildfires, leading to a significant impact in their ability to respond to emergencies 

Aside from issues like net neutrality, there have also been several instances of cell phone service disruption as a tactic to limit communications during a protest. For example, in 2011 the San Francisco Bay Area rail transit system (BART) turned off cell phone service during a protest against a fatal shooting by BART police. Not only did the agency stand by their actions, they stated they were part of a new “Cell Phone Interruption Policy “ which allowed them to disrupt cell service in “extraordinary circumstances”. Policies like this normalize and justify the extreme and oppressive tactic of cutting off communication. 

How can we organize to support net neutrality and improve internet access in the U.S.?

Detroit Community Tech Project

Groups like MediaJustice, Free Press, Access Now and Color of Change are organizing campaigns to improve affordable internet access across the United States. And groups like NYC Mesh are creating free wifi for protesters, while the Detroit Community Technology Project is building their own mesh network for residents. Get involved and learn more:

How can we prepare for internet shutdowns in the future and support people that are experiencing them currently?

It is essential that we recognize our responsibility to address the global issue of internet shutdowns. There are national and international movement technologists and organizations working towards a more equitable and democratic internet. You can support these groups and act in solidarity with those who are experiencing or are at imminent threat of experiencing a shutdown by:  

Know of other initiatives we should support and share? Let us know via email feedback [@] witness.org or on Twitter @witnessorg_usa

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