The Commonwealth is an organisation of high ideals; unfortunately, its members too often fail to live up to those principles and are only rarely held to them. Internet freedom is a good example: at the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, member states signed up to the Commonwealth Cyber Declaration, which acknowledged the role of ‘a free, open, inclusive and secure cyberspace’ in promoting economic growth and development.
The signatories agreed to ‘support … the free flow of information’, expand ‘digital access and digital inclusion for all communities without discrimination’, and acknowledged ‘the importance of tolerance [and] respect for diversity’. They also pledged to ‘limit the circumstances in which communication networks may be intentionally disrupted’ and meet ‘agreed voluntary norms of responsible state behaviour’.
It is disappointing then to see that each year since the Cyber Declaration the worst offender for shutting down the internet was one of the Commonwealth’s leading members: India. In a recent report, Internet shutdowns in 2021: the return of digital authoritarianism, the #KeepItOn campaign documented 182 intentional internet blackouts in 34 countries in 2021 (compared with 159 in 29 countries the year before). It said the ‘prolonged and increasingly targeted internet shutdowns’ were ‘transparent efforts to silence critics and suppress dissent [or] to control the flow of information during elections and active conflict’.
India was far ahead of any other country in using this draconian method, imposing 106 shutdowns; the next three biggest culprits – Myanmar, Sudan and Iran – had only 25 shutdowns between them. Of the 19 countries that led the field, nearly a third were Commonwealth members; after India, they included Uganda, which imposed three shutdowns; as well as Bangladesh, Eswatini, Nigeria and Pakistan, which all did it twice last year. As well as the cost to civil liberties, there is a huge hit to the economy: the website Top10VPN put the cost to India in 2020 at $2.8bn.
Two of the four longest stretches were also in Commonwealth states. One was Pakistan, which cut off the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (seven tribal areas and six frontier zones merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in 2018) for an enormous 2,026 days, only switching it back on in late 2021 after five and a half years. The other was India, which shut down Jammu and Kashmir for 551 days, from 5 August 2019, when the Modi government suspended the region’s 63-year special autonomous status to make it a union territory.
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The report was written for #KeepItOn by Access Now. The digital rights coalition, which began in 2016 at the RightsCon conference in Silicon Valley, has since grown to 282 civil society and human rights groups from 105 countries. Its research found a growing trend of imposing internet shutdowns during protests – occurring in Bangladesh, Eswatini, India, Pakistan and Uganda among Commonwealth states. In Pakistan, certain platforms – including Facebook, Twitter and TikTok – were targeted ahead of anti-government protests. In other countries, including India, dissent was choked off by ‘throttling’ – or artificially restricting – data flow through a network, as well as censorship by blocking platforms.
Zambia shut down the internet during last year’s elections, as did the Gambia in 2016. In Uganda, such blackouts have become ‘a familiar electoral trend’, according to one analyst, after shutdowns during polls in 2006, 2011 and 2021, when it lasted for four days. This followed Facebook and Twitter suspending accounts linked to Uganda’s information ministry for what the platforms call ‘coordinated inauthentic behaviour’, such as posting identical messages supposedly from the public backing a police crackdown on opposition supporters. The Ugandan Communication Commission responded by ordering internet service providers to block social-media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram, as well as more than 100 virtual private networks (VPNs), which allow users to circumvent censorship by hiding personal addresses.
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There have been successful examples of civil society pushing back against a heavy-handed state. In Zambia, the Chapter One Foundation challenged the shutdown during last August’s elections and, in a high court ‘consent judgment’ in March, won an agreement by the telecoms regulator Zicta not to act outside its legal authority to block internet access in future.
In Nigeria, the government banned Twitter last June after it deleted a post by President Muhammadu Buhari in which he referred to the Biafran civil war and threatened regional secessionists. Access Now, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Open Net Association, backed Nigeria’s Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and 176 Nigerian individuals in a legal challenge to the ban, saying: ‘freedom of speech must be upheld.’ In a landmark judgment last month, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) court declared the Twitter ban unlawful and ordered the government never to repeat it. The court ruled that the Buhari administration had violated the plaintiffs’ rights to ‘the enjoyment of freedom of expression, access to information and the media, as well as the right to fair hearing’.
In India, by contrast, the government appears to ignore such legal reprimands: although the supreme court ruled that the Kashmir internet shutdown was illegal in January 2020 – with judge NV Ramana declaring that ‘freedom of internet access is a fundamental right’ – the blackout was not lifted until February 2021.
One of the Modi government’s most blatant efforts to weaponise internet access was during the 16-month-long farmers’ protest, when tens of thousands of farmers converged on the Indian capital to oppose the government’s three farm bills, which aimed to deregulate agricultural markets and end guaranteed prices. On 26 January 2021, as thousands of protesters drove their tractors into Delhi, riot police were deployed and internet services cut. Ironically, this was Republic Day, a public holiday to celebrate the Indian constitution; Article 19(1) of which guarantees all citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression.
Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board