Why internet shutdowns are a core human rights issue

Anita Gohdes and Amnesty International take a close look at Iran’s 2019 internet shutdown and the implications of technological repression.

A new report by Hertie School Professor of International and Cyber Security Anita Gohdes and Amnesty International shows how internet shutdowns are becoming a tool of oppression in some places, with a close look at the shutdown that unfolded in Iran during massive protests in 2019.

A year ago this week, protests erupted in Iran following the government’s announcement of an increase in the price of fuel. As demonstrators’ demands for a radical overhaul of the political system gathered steam, authorities implemented a near-total countrywide internet blackout by ordering different internet service providers (ISPs) to shut down.

The report shows that cutting off Iranians from the rest of the world led to the silencing of dissent and suppressed documentation of state violence. They note that Articles 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantee the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

“Activities such as organising protests, speaking freely against government policies, and documenting and disseminating information on human rights violations all rely on the ability to access the internet,” the authors say. “Such activities are protected under international human rights law, which also guards against unjustified internet shutdowns.”

After a fact-finding mission, Amnesty International recorded and verified the deaths of 304 people killed by the Iranian security services between 15 and 19 November 2019 – the deadliest political unrest since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The majority of these deaths took place during the internet shutdown, which lasted six days.

For the report, the researchers analysed more than 100 verified videos collected from social media and messaging apps during the protests in Iran. The videos show security forces shooting protesters and bystanders, including children. Even after internet access was restored, the report says, witnesses didn’t come forward because they feared arrest or prosecution.

As a result, it has become extremely difficult to hold the perpetrators accountable. Furthermore, the report finds, shutdowns have an impact on demonstrations and protests in general. Sharing videos has become an integral part of mobilising supporters, but when they are denied internet access, protestors will be forced to find new ways to resist, the authors say.

Read the full report here.

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  • Anita Gohdes , Professor of International and Cyber Security