Internet Shutdown Litigation: How India and Chad are Moving the Needle for the Global Judiciary

By: Meghan Chilappa

Internet shutdowns are on the rise globally, and they occur in autocracies like Iran and in democracies like India.[1]  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.[2] 

The first internet shutdown occurred in the Maldives in 2004, in response to thousands of citizens peacefully protesting the President’s decades in power.[3]  Governments use myriad rationales to carry out internet shutdowns, but the most commonly cited justification is “public safety.”[4]  In reality, “public safety” is interpreted broadly, and authorities may even enforce shutdowns for trivial matters such as preventing cheating on exams.[5]  More commonly, authorities seek to control information during elections and to quell protests and dissent after enacting unpopular legislation.[6]  Contrary to popular belief, however, shutdowns do not hamper the spread of false information.[7]

Human rights activists and lawyers argue that internet shutdowns impact freedom of expression, access to information, the right to education, and due process.[8]  In the last couple years, lawyers have challenged internet shutdowns in court to raise awareness of the fundamental human rights issues at stake.[9]

In January, the Indian Supreme Court declared a judgment on the months-long internet shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir.[10]  The Court ruled that moving forward, shutdowns must adhere to proportionality standards and be of a “temporary duration.”[11]  Furthermore, the judges determined that perpetual communications blackouts hamper freedom of expression and that shutdown orders must be reviewed and published.[12]  However, Mishi Choudhary, a lawyer with the SFLC, remains skeptical.[13]  She reiterates that it will remain difficult to argue that a shutdown is an “abuse of power.”[14]  Furthermore, limited internet shutdowns may survive constitutional violations because the government could prove a reasonable apprehension of danger existed.[15]

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.[16]  Lawyer Abdel-Adheem Hassan challenged Zain – the largest Sudanese telecommunications company – in court.[17]  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.[18]  Following this ruling, Sudanese citizens may exercise their right to seek a remedy from telecommunications companies.[19]

Telecommunications companies face increased scrutiny as judges hand down rulings; activists argue that ISPs remain complicit.[20]  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.[21]  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 information.[22] 


[1] 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/.

[2] Frequently Asked Questions, Software Freedom Law Center – India, https://internetshutdowns.in/about (last visited Mar. 2, 2020).

[3] 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).  

[4] 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/.

[5] 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).

[6] Collins, supra note 4.

[7] See id. (quoting internet shutdown expert Berhan Taye that blocking false information only delays the spread of false information).

[8] 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/.

[9] Samuel Woodhams, Contesting the Legality of Internet Shutdowns, Just Security (Oct. 1, 2019), https://www.justsecurity.org/66317/contesting-the-legality-of-internet-shutdowns/.

[10] 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.

[11] 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.

[12] Id.

[13] Majumder, supra note 10.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] 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).

[17] 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/.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] 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.

[21] 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/.

[22] Woodhams, supra note 9.

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