From Rihanna to Aung San Suu Kyi, news of internet shutdowns has been making the rounds lately. Access Now, a non-profit that focuses on digital rights around the world, documented 213 incidents of shutdowns in 2019 alone. As the report detailed, these shutdowns rarely come out of nowhere. Indeed, they are most often justified as a content moderation decision:
While the internet enables the fulfillment of many human rights, there is a growing concern about the role it plays in facilitating or spreading misinformation and incendiary content. The most common official justification for ordering shutdowns in 2019 was “fighting fake news, hate speech, or content promoting violence.”
At the same time, misinformation has indeed thrived in many parts of the world that currently face internet shutdowns. In 2018, for example, misinformation on WhatsApp made headlines in places like Myanmar and Sri Lanka for potentially fueling violence. Does that make online shutdowns a necessary and justifiable action to limit offline violence?
And yet, as Access Now reminds us, “When these concerns are legitimate, internet shutdowns rarely provide a solution and can worsen an already volatile environment. In some cases, they can lead to or hide atrocities, as seen in Sudan or Myanmar.” Indeed, as we learned in the case of Myanmar, the very military that ordered the shutdown is also behind the spread of misinformation. In the case of Uganda’s internet shutdown ahead of its recent election, the ruling party seemed best positioned to benefit.
In other words, the apparent binary between rampant misinformation and hard shutdowns looks more like a traditional story of power and its abuse.
Many people continue to say that the internet has democratized access to information, expression and other issues. The reality, however, is that the full stack of internet access is largely run by private companies, many of whom are beholden to governments with limited commitments to democracy. As such, the way we access the internet is a decision made by both private and public interests.
And while the internet is often hailed as a space for democratizing access, it rarely comes with the practices and principles that we might expect of a democratic institution: fair representation, checks and balances, transparency and accountability. Instead, what we see around the world is that access to power and money often determines the experience of one’s own access to the internet. At the upper echelons, power and money determine how other people access the internet too, and whether they can access it free from fear of harm and shutdowns.
As I wrote last month, we have at least two directions forward as we look toward the future of the internet: governments around the world continue to drive us toward splinternet-like situations, where your experience of the internet depends on where you live and whether you can afford a VPN or other tools to get around shutdowns and platform bans.
On the other hand, this moment in history might give rise to an evolution of the internet that’s aligned with international human rights standards, with transparency, good governance and civic responsibility taken into account.
For now, the wave of internet shutdowns around the world remind us who’s really in charge online.