On February 3, 2020, the Norwegian Telenor Group issued a statement that the Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications has directed all mobile operators in Myanmar to stop mobile internet traffic for up to three months in five townships in Rakhine and Chin States. It is noteworthy that the five townships have been previously subject to data network shutdown from June 30 to August 31, 2019. The Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications has been relying on the arguments of security and public interest to justify the directive. However, it is crucial to emphasize that shutting down the internet could be used as a means of curbing human rights.
Over the years, the internet has become an essential part of our lives. The internet has changed the way we access information, the way we connect with others, the way we see opportunities and the way we take them. Understandably, there is also the dark side of the internet, aside from the dark web, there is the opportunity for fraud, online abuse, hacking, cyberbullying, the spread of propaganda and much more. These are issues are still difficult (if not impossible) to gain control over, to minimize their risk and to prevent their spread. Many states have been tried to introduce mechanisms for oversight and to prevent online harms, however, many have proved unsuccessful.
In some parts of the words, states use the internet as a method to control whole communities. Indeed, several states have been using their power to shut down the internet to curb dissent and human rights. RightsCon Brussels defines internet shutdown as “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.” Such deliberate shutdowns are not uncommon in some countries. According to recent research, India is one of the worst abusers of the shutdown. As Access Now, a non-governmental organization working on defending and extending digital rights, claims:
“In 2018, the global #KeepItOn coalition documented more than 196 internet shutdowns around the world. Just as it has been since 2015, India was responsible for the majority: 67% of the world’s documented shutdowns took place in India in 2018, with 134 incidents. The remaining 33% took place in a diverse range of countries: Algeria, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic Congo, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Mali, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, and Russia.”
While such shutdowns have been justified in some situations (where they have been acknowledged in the first place) with arguments of, among others, national or public safety, fake news or hate speech, as Access Now emphasizes, such shutdowns: “violate human rights, put people in danger, harm the economy… curtail freedom of expression, cut access to information, and can inhibit people from assembling and associating peacefully, online and off.” The human rights violations Access Now references range from breach of the right of access to information and freedom of expression, through to grave human rights violations such as violent response to protests. Furthermore, and what is even more concerning especially in areas of conflicts, “during shutdowns, many victims are unable to reach their families, get accurate information to stay safe, or reach emergency services.”
This is also the pressing concern in the case of Myanmar. As Human Rights Watch warns, the shutdown will “make it harder for civilians to obtain help when needed, and significantly more difficult for humanitarian agencies to assist vulnerable populations.” The internet shutdown in Rakhine state should not be seen in a vacuum but in light of the atrocities perpetrated in the state, including the atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims. It is noteworthy that on January 23, 2020, the International Court of Justice (the ICJ), the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, ordered Myanmar several provisional measures to protect the Rohingya Muslim minority in the country. The timing of the internet shutdown should not be seen as a coincidence. The atrocities are likely to continue when Rakhine state is in the “dark.”