Working together to stop Internet shutdowns

EU-OHCHR webinar
‘Working together to stop Internet shutdowns’

Opening remarks by the EUSR for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore
Monday, 26 September 2022, 13.30 CET


Recoding available here (2:12-9:36)


Thank you very much, Peggy [Hicks]. Good afternoon to everybody. It is a pleasure to be with you on this online event tackling the increasingly worrying topic of Internet shutdowns. It is an opportunity to look back at the past few months of our public campaign against shutdowns, which was a joint initiative by the European Union and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

That joint initiative follows the Strategic Dialogue on human rights between the European Union and the OHCHR. The first two of these editions I had the honour to co-chair with the former High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet. We identified, in that Strategic Dialogue, new technologies and their impact on human rights as being a topic at the forefront of global issues which we need to discuss more and also to work more on.

For several years, the European Union has been working at various levels to harness opportunities and to address challenges of new technologies: through our Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy; through legislation we have enacted – some of which with significant global impact such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) or the new Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act; the work that we do through our annual Human Rights Dialogues with more 60 countries; and of course the emergency support that we provide for human rights defenders at risk in cyber-space.

Our joint campaign with the OHCHR was part of these concerted efforts aimed at human-centric new technologies, maximizing the realization of human rights for all, everywhere.

By no means can we claim that our campaign has halted Internet shutdowns, but we have shed more light on violations of human rights stemming from this practice. We have also drawn the public’s attention to the excellent OHCHR report on Internet shutdowns, which was released this June, and to its key findings and recommendations. As the report states, Internet “shutdowns are powerful markers of deteriorating human rights situations”.

And let me be clear from the very outset: Any practices curtailing access to an open and free Internet is an attack on human rights. Today, across the globe, billions of people rely on the Internet every day, as part of their work and to access information, health services and education, to exchange ideas, document human rights violations. The European Union continues to advocate for an open, un-fragmented, free, safe, and secure for everyone Internet and for the respect of privacy offline as well as online.

Internet shutdowns were rarely documented 10 years ago, but thanks to the work of independent civil society organizations such as Access Now (who are present in our panel today), we have now a better picture. The Keep It On Coalition had documented, between 2016 and 2021, 931 Internet shutdowns in 74 countries. Shutdowns are more prevalent in Africa and Asia, while they can vary significantly in length, from a few hours to months.

Internet shutdowns are on the rise across the world. Shutdowns – be they a blanket blockage of the Internet, a blockage of certain websites or services, or a limitation of the bandwidth – are in the majority implemented by governments as a crackdown on freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and sometimes to manipulate democratic processes.

As you have already mentioned, Peggy [Hicks], as we speak Iranian authorities have been severely restricting Internet access, cracking down on protests that erupted following the shocking death of Mahsa Amini while she was in custody of the morality police for not wearing her hijab.

According to the OHCHR report, almost half of all shutdowns recorded by civil society groups between 2016 and 2021 were carried out in the context of protests and political crisis, with 225 shutdowns recorded during public demonstrations. In the same period, at least 52 elections were affected by Internet shutdowns.

In our campaign, we have given voice to human rights defenders on the ground who are fighting to keep the Internet open. We have heard and disseminated stories from Venezuela, Zambia, Myanmar, and Kazakhstan. Thousands of viewers across the globe have engaged with our #InternetShutdowns campaign on social media.

Despite the worrying trend, the picture is not all bleak. All across the world, young human rights defenders are raising their voice for a free digital sphere. Civil society organizations are monitoring and analysing shutdowns. We are also seeing national and regional human rights courts investigating shutdowns.

I am looking forward to hearing from our panellists the positive stories of resilience. Moreover, today’s discussion is not only about taking stock of the current situation, but also about identifying what concrete actions we can take to improve our fight against shutdowns.

In conclusion, let me assure you that the European Union is committed to continue condemning shutdowns in our diplomacy. We will also continue to foster connectivity, in particular through the implementation of the Global Gateway.

Through our new programming cycle, we will fund specific measures to protect civil society in the digital sphere, including by financing VPNs, and trainings on digital security.

We will also increasingly liaise with the private sector, including through the EU’s new office in San Francisco.

And, of course, we will continue engaging with the United Nations system — and with the new High Commissioner and his Office, with UN Special Procedures and the UN Tech Envoy to combat Internet shutdowns.

Because the United Nations remains the essential forum where new measures and new standards in the digital sphere are discussed and developed, in full compliance with international human rights law.

Thank you very much Peggy [Hicks] and thank you for moderating this event.

Watch the full webinar