Access Now interview

“The tide is turning on how the world sees internet shutdowns.” — In conversation with Access Now

The internet allows people to easily express themselves, come together, and access information. It is also a gateway to education, information, communication, employment, and enjoyment. When oppressive governments shut down the internet, they are knowingly restricting their citizens’ rights and freedoms.

Access Now is a non-profit organization that defends and extends the digital rights of people around the world, especially those at risk of experiencing an internet shutdown. They are perhaps best known for launching the #KeepItOn campaign, a global movement of more than 200 organizations across 70 countries working together to fight against internet shutdowns.

We spoke to Marianne Díaz Hernández, #KeepItOn Fellow at Access Now, about the organization’s work, the importance of stopping internet shutdowns, and the steps everyday people can take to defend everyone’s right to internet access.

Not only are shutdowns an attack on fundamental rights, they also have a severe negative impact on the economy, health care, education, and other aspects of everyday life.

Marianne Díaz Hernández, #KeepItOn Fellow at Access Now

What is Access now?

Access Now(new window) is a global human rights organization founded in 2009 to defend and extend the digital rights of people at risk around the world. Access Now hosts RightsCon(new window), an annual human rights summit, and leads #KeepItOn(new window) in the fight against internet shutdowns.

How did Access Now come to exist?

Access Now was founded by Brett Solomon, Cameran Ashraf, Sina Rabbani, and Kim Pham in 2009, after that year’s contested Iranian presidential election, in a hopeful moment when the power of technology was a force for good in the world. 

During the 2009 Iranian election, millions of people came together — both in person and online — to organize, protest election fraud, and report on human rights abuses. They achieved this despite the government blocking internet access, censoring content, and undermining its opponents’ online security. 

Access Now began as an emergency response team of technologists working to help people get back online and ensure their safe communications.

What are the aims of Access Now?

Our aim is to defend and extend the digital rights of people at risk around the world. 

We work to achieve this goal by influencing powerful people across sectors, using human rights-focused thought leadership, evidence-based policy analysis, and innovative campaign tactics.

We have global partnerships with civil society groups, journalists, technologists, and other key actors that we use to educate and appeal to policymakers in parliaments and corporate boardrooms. We also create digital security resources to help people protect their digital rights and mobilize global internet users to pressure the powerful.

Our 24/7 Digital Security Helpline(new window) provides comprehensive, real-time technical assistance to people at risk of digital rights violations. We also provide flexible and grantee-driven funding to grassroots organizations and activist groups that work with people and communities most at risk of digital rights violations.

How does the internet intersect with human rights?

The internet has given people the opportunity to easily exercise their rights online. When governments implement internet shutdowns, they interfere with these rights, including freedom of opinion and expression, access to information, and freedom of assembly. 

The internet is a gateway to education, information, communication, employment, and enjoyment — no government has the right to deny people access to it.

What is an internet shutdown?

The definition of internet shutdown has evolved as new technology is developed, and the strategies taken by governments and other actors to curtail human rights have done the same. 

Our current working definition is that an internet shutdown is an 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.

Why do internet shutdowns occur?

Internet shutdowns occur when governments want to exert control over communication, information, and dissent. It is typically governments that order them, and the types of shutdowns include blanket shutdowns (cutting access entirely), slowing access (throttling), or blocking communications platforms like messaging apps. 

People also refer to shutdowns as “blackouts” or network disruptions, and their implementation as “hitting the kill switch”. 

Governments’ attempts to justify shutdowns include claiming that they are necessary to restore public order or national security, or to prevent the spread of misinformation, or even to curb cheating on exams, or for technical reasons.

However, these governments typically order shutdowns under circumstances that suggest the interference is, in fact, aimed at quelling protests or gagging citizens during important national events, like elections, or times of crises and chaos, like protests.

What are the ramifications for everyday people when there is an internet shutdown?

Internet shutdowns interfere with the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, access to information, and freedom of assembly, among many others. Not only are shutdowns an attack on fundamental rights, they also have a severe negative impact on the economy, health care, education, and other aspects of everyday life. 

People who can’t connect to the internet have a harder time accessing information, educational platforms, financial resources such as banking, and communication tools. It also becomes harder to make their opinions heard and to participate in the life of their community and country.

In addition, internet blackouts can put people’s livelihood at risk. Shutdowns destabilize income for people who rely on the internet to run and promote their small businesses and enterprises. 

Since the internet and communication tools help people in developing nations — particularly women and other marginalized groups — make a living, cutting or disrupting access to the internet means denying them their capacity to afford basic necessities, such as food, water, electricity, and education for their families. 

Over the last two years, as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the world, accessing information online often became the difference between life and death, compounding these ramifications and magnifying the consequences.

Are there any surprising impacts of internet shutdowns?

Most people are unaware of the damage that an internet shutdown can do to a country’s economy. For instance, a four-day shutdown in Algeria in September 2020 cost the country’s economy an estimated 50 billion dinars (388 million USD). In 2016, a study by the Brookings Institution revealed that shutdowns drained 2.4 billion USD from the global economy between 2015 and 2016.

At Proton, we typically see large spikes in VPN signups from countries where governments impose or threaten to impose internet censorship. What is the role of VPNs in fighting for people’s right to a free and open internet?

Depending on the kind of internet shutdown taking place, VPNs and other circumvention tools can be a lifeline to help people get back online. For instance, most blockings that affect specific social media platforms can be circumvented by using VPNs or Tor. 

However, governments attempting to block certain platforms or websites will often also block access to VPN providers, thus deliberately making it difficult for people to install the tool once the kill switch has been struck. This is why it is important to communicate why and how a VPN needs to be downloaded in advance if people are at risk of experiencing a shutdown. 

In the same way, VPNs can often be a costly tool for people at risk, so some VPN companies offer free bandwidth in countries experiencing a shutdown. This can be a tremendous help for people in those places, allowing them to make their voices heard and communicate with each other and the rest of the world.

How did the #KeepItOn campaign come about?

We launched the #KeepItOn campaign in 2016 to unite and organize the efforts of activists and organizations across the world in the fight to end internet shutdowns. The campaign now represents over 250 organizations from 105 countries across the globe. 

The campaign and the #KeepItOn coalition came as a natural evolution of Access Now’s previous work, stemming from the organization’s work campaigning against internet shutdowns and providing assistance to get people back online since its creation in 2009. 

Internet shutdowns have been, and are being, used as a tool for repression across the globe, and the coalition is advancing the fight to stop them. 

We use a wide range of approaches, including grassroots advocacy, direct policymaker engagement, technical support, corporate accountability, and legal intervention.

What do you think has been the biggest success story for Access Now?

Every time a government upholds internet access throughout protests, elections, and other important events, we see it as a win for the #KeepItOn coalition.

The tide is turning on how the world sees internet shutdowns. Since the launch of the #KeepItOn coalition in 2016, we have seen the passage of resolutions and adoption of statements by the United Nations, African Union, the Freedom Online Coalition, and the G7 (among others) denouncing internet shutdowns. This has all been a direct result of the coalition’s advocacy efforts.

The last time The Gambia voted for its president, the government shut down the internet. This time, they did not. Authorities in Benin and Chad who previously shut down the internet kept it on during this year’s elections. 

When civil society stands up to governments, demanding accountability and action, it’s a win. When authorities blocked Twitter in Nigeria, civil society took them to court. Last year, the #KeepItOn community welcomed landmark rulings in Togo and Indonesia denouncing internet shutdowns that were imposed by authorities. 

Seeing the judiciary lift the gavel to stamp out internet shutdowns in other countries like Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Zambia continues to be among our biggest achievements.

What choices can everyday people make to support Access Now and better defend their human rights online?

At Proton, we believe that everyone should have access to a free and open internet, and that online privacy is a fundamental human right. Providing free access to a secure VPN is part of our mission. Proton VPN(new window) is the only no-logs VPN(new window) that offers a free plan with no advertisements and no data or speed limits. Journalists, activists, and millions of people worldwide rely on Proton VPN to access the uncensored internet and keep their browsing history private.

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