By: Meghan Chilappa
Internet shutdowns are on the rise globally, and they occur in autocracies like Iran and in democracies like India. The Software Freedom Law Center (“SFLC”), a prominent digital rights organization, emphasizes two key elements of an internet shutdown: 1) the government’s role (through direct orders to internet service providers (“ISP”)) and 2) the blanket nature of internet shutdowns, which differ from disabling certain forms of content or throttling bandwidth.
The first internet shutdown occurred in the Maldives in 2004, in response to thousands of citizens peacefully protesting the President’s decades in power. Governments use myriad rationales to carry out internet shutdowns, but the most commonly cited justification is “public safety.” In reality, “public safety” is interpreted broadly, and authorities may even enforce shutdowns for trivial matters such as preventing cheating on exams. More commonly, authorities seek to control information during elections and to quell protests and dissent after enacting unpopular legislation. Contrary to popular belief, however, shutdowns do not hamper the spread of false information.
Human rights activists and lawyers argue that internet shutdowns impact freedom of expression, access to information, the right to education, and due process. In the last couple years, lawyers have challenged internet shutdowns in court to raise awareness of the fundamental human rights issues at stake.
In January, the Indian Supreme Court declared a judgment on the months-long internet shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir. The Court ruled that moving forward, shutdowns must adhere to proportionality standards and be of a “temporary duration.” Furthermore, the judges determined that perpetual communications blackouts hamper freedom of expression and that shutdown orders must be reviewed and published. However, Mishi Choudhary, a lawyer with the SFLC, remains skeptical. She reiterates that it will remain difficult to argue that a shutdown is an “abuse of power.” Furthermore, limited internet shutdowns may survive constitutional violations because the government could prove a reasonable apprehension of danger existed.
On June 3, 2019, after a violent military crackdown against protestors in Khartoum, the Sudanese government put in place an internet shutdown which lasted five weeks. Lawyer Abdel-Adheem Hassan challenged Zain – the largest Sudanese telecommunications company – in court. After a month, the three major telecommunications companies – Zain, MTN, and Sudani – were required to restore full internet access to their customers following the Khartoum District Court’s ruling. Following this ruling, Sudanese citizens may exercise their right to seek a remedy from telecommunications companies.
companies face increased scrutiny as judges hand down rulings; activists argue
that ISPs remain complicit. Civil society groups plead with ISPs to adhere
to the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights and also recommend
that they submit transparency reports and push back against censorship demands. Internet
shutdowns implicate national security, freedom of expression, geopolitics, and
technology law and policy. A tool in the
digital repression toolkit, internet shutdowns are a form of deliberate and
preemptive censorship which threatens freedom of expression and association. However, an increase in litigation is
promising for media literacy, transparency, and citizens’ access to
 Daniela Flamini, The Scary Trend of Internet Shutdowns, Poytner (Aug. 1, 2019), https://www.poynter.org/reporting-editing/2019/the-scary-trend-of-internet-shutdowns/.
 Frequently Asked Questions, Software Freedom Law Center – India, https://internetshutdowns.in/about (last visited Mar. 2, 2020).
 President Gayoom Cuts Off Internet Links with Outside World, Reporters Without Borders (Aug. 13, 2004), https://rsf.org/en/news/president-gayoom-cuts-internet-links-outside-world (reporting that protestors gathered to demonstrate against President Gayoom’s corruption, political repression, and police brutality against dissidents).
 Katie Collins, Inside the Dystopian Nightmare of an Internet Shutdown, CNET (Oct. 31, 2019, 8:00 AM), https://www.cnet.com/features/inside-the-dystopian-nightmare-of-an-internet-shutdown/.
 See Berhan Taye, India Cuts Internet Access for School Exams, Doubles Down on Rights-Harming Shutdowns, AccessNow (July 23, 2018, 4:05 PM), https://www.accessnow.org/india-cuts-internet-access-for-school-exams-doubles-down-on-rights-harming-shutdowns/ (detailing that India, Iraq, and Algeria block internet access for large groups of citizens during various types of exams).
 Collins, supra note 4.
 See id. (quoting internet shutdown expert Berhan Taye that blocking false information only delays the spread of false information).
 Peter Micek & Madeline Libbey, Judges Raise the Gavel to #KeepItOn Around the World, AccessNow (Sept. 23, 2019, 12:15 PM), https://www.accessnow.org/judges-raise-the-gavel-to-keepiton-around-the-world/.
 Samuel Woodhams, Contesting the Legality of Internet Shutdowns, Just Security (Oct. 1, 2019), https://www.justsecurity.org/66317/contesting-the-legality-of-internet-shutdowns/.
 Kumal Majumder, Lawyer Mishi Choudhury on What India Shutdowns Ruling Means for Journalists, Comm. to Protect Journalists (Jan. 16, 2020, 3:46 PM), https://cpj.org/blog/2020/01/lawyer-mishi-choudhury-on-what-india-shutdowns-rul.php.
 SC judgment – Safeguards for Shutdown, Limited Relief for Kashmir, Software Freedom Law Center – India (Jan. 11, 2020, 3:08 AM), https://sflc.in/sc-judgment-safeguards-shutdown-limited-relief-kashmir.
 Majumder, supra note 10.
 Claire Parker, Sudan’s Military has Shut Down the Internet to Crush a Popular Revolt. Here’s How it Could Backfire., Wash. Post (June 21, 2019, 3:32 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/06/21/sudans-military-has-shut-down-internet-crush-popular-revolt-heres-how-it-could-backfire/; See also Sudan Internet Shows Signs of Recovery after Month-long Shutdown, NetBlocks (July 9, 2019), https://netblocks.org/reports/sudan-internet-recovery-after-month-long-shutdown-98aZpOAo (reporting technical details of real-time network connectivity data after internet shutdown).
 Mohamed Suliman, Internet Shutdowns and the Right to Access in Sudan: A Post-revolution Perspective, Advox Global Voices (Sept. 16, 2019, 2:56 PM), https://advox.globalvoices.org/2019/09/16/internet-shutdowns-and-the-right-to-access-in-sudan-a-post-revolution-perspective/.
 Chiponda Chimbelu, The Government or the People. Telecoms Firms Trapped in Internet Shutdowns, Deutsche Welle (July 22, 2019), https://www.dw.com/en/the-government-or-the-people-telecoms-firms-trapped-in-internet-shutdowns/a-49634343.
 Berhan Taye, Joint Letter to MTN Calling for Transparency around Internet Shutdowns in Sudan, AccessNow (July 9, 2019, 11:04 AM), https://www.accessnow.org/mtn-sudan-keepiton/.
 Woodhams, supra note 9.