Communication shutdowns: “The fabric of society is torn” | #mediadev | DW | 16.10.2015
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Communication shutdowns: “The fabric of society is torn”

Access to information is a human right, also regarding the Internet. But Ben Wagner from the Centre for Internet & Human Rights says countries block Internet access regularly, which has serious implications for society.

Communication is depending more and more on the Internet of things

Communication is depending more and more on the Internet of things

#mediadev: How is it even possible to shut down the Internet?

Ben Wagner: In principle, the Internet and many communication technologies were designed to function in a way that resists certain forms of interference and shutdowns. But we need to remember that the commercial structures around these technologies have become very centralized. We have few international backbone providers of the Internet and few central mobile phone providers in every country. For instance, Germany used to have four providers and is now going down to three [because of a proposed merger]. So we’re in a situation where the actual physical actors providing Internet access are quite few in number. As a result, they’re vulnerable to pressure from governments.

How are societies affected by network shutdowns?

You have to remember that we live in societies where so many of the things we do and the stuff we have around us doesn't work unless they can communicate with other things. So we’re talking about the Internet of things now – if you think of things as simple as a credit card or even, in some cases, a traffic light, they only function when networked with other devices. This networking breaks down when communications are disconnected. So your credit card often won’t be accepted for payment if it can’t contact a central server. Your library book can only be taken out, returned or searched for if it is in a catalog, which is digital. There are many, many other areas hidden from the view of the consumer in which communication technologies are deeply embedded, for example, seeing how full a warehouse is at a specific place and restocking it if needed. But also access to emergency services, your ability to call the police, to call the fire department or an ambulance. All of that depends on your ability to communicate.

What about freedom of expression, particularly when vulnerable groups are affected?

It’s important to look at several different contexts. There are specific situations in which human beings need to communicate a lot. These tend to be situations in which they are vulnerable – when they need a doctor, when they need to speak to somebody because their house is burning down or when they have to flee from their homes.

In many of these situations, human beings who are not necessarily vulnerable in general become vulnerable and have greater need for communication than they would otherwise have. It’s often thought that frequent communication is a sign of luxury and that only rich people with access to many methods of communication actually do a lot of communicating. It’s often the other way around. People who need to communicate a lot don’t do it out of luxury but rather out of necessity.

Separately from that, there are marginalized social groups who are specifically targeted and disconnected from various communication methods. In many parts of the world, those groups or those regions that protest against the government are disconnected. This occurs to prevent protests but also to punish people who are living in that region and to remind them of who’s in control of the infrastructure.

Could you give us an example of a country where shutdowns happen on a regular basis?

Pakistan YouTube Internetseite blockiert Archivbild 2008

Blocked website in Pakistan

One case that we’ve done a lot of research on is Pakistan. There you see that both political protesters and people in some of the more remote regions of the country, which are seen to be supporting the Taliban, such as Baluchistan, experience disconnections and other forms of discrimination more frequently. They often protest against this discrimination but then, in this context, the disconnection from communication channels becomes yet another tool of discrimination.

What specific lessons can be drawn from the instances you looked at in more developed countries?

There is an ongoing global debate about these issues that doesn’t stop in Pakistan or in India. It extends to the whole world. We have the same debate in Germany, in Austria, in the UK and in the US where there are discussions about turning off communications due to security concerns. What we can see in Pakistan or in India is a warning for many countries where this discussion is taking place. It shows quite clearly the contexts in which these shutdowns are used and what the consequences can be for wider social, political or economic stability. This is simply because, at a very fundamental level, we live in a world built on communication. When communications are disconnected, part of the fabric of society is torn and it becomes very difficult to repair. Once you start messing around with the way people can communicate with each other, you can’t just pretend that by flicking the switch on and off everything is going to be okay. Rather you exclude certain groups and certain practices and make it more difficult for human beings to do something perfectly normal, which is to speak to one another.

How can the vast parts of the world’s population be connected which still have no access?

I think we have a relatively good chance to do that. Current growth rates around the world suggest that there will be many more populations coming online and getting connected via mobile phone networks…

…but maybe so far only the low-hanging fruit has been harvested…

I don’t think so. We’re also seeing an extremely rapid pace in technological development. In the last 20 years, we’ve had to connect people on very underdeveloped mobile phone networks – first and second-generation networks. But there are no technological obstacles in the way of the fourth and fifth-generation networks that are common now and which can rapidly provide lots and lots of communication services to large parts, if not all of, the world. What we don’t really have is the regulatory frameworks, the markets and the social support to ensure that these technological networks can be built. The problem is technically simple but complex when it comes to regulation or social questions.

One current and controversial issue in your field of research has been, Facebook’s initiative to provide free access to people who are not yet connected. Doesn’t this program appear to be in the interest of those who lack access?

The interesting thing about is that it was recently rebranded as Free Basics. Facebook has tried to respond to many of the concerns about the services that they’re providing. Free Basics is a service for people that don’t have Internet access, and it shouldn't be understood as providing access to the full Internet. It only gives access to a small number of select websites. It’s a zero-rated service, which means that people don’t have to pay for it. Now, in and of itself, the service is not evil or wrong. But it does suffer from certain issues related both to claiming that this is “the Internet” and from limitations on user security and on access to information.

In the case of Free Basics or, it’s also a very clever strategy to ensure that Facebook gains a larger market share. But Facebook is a private company, so we shouldn’t be surprised at that. We rather should ensure there are similar models from as many different providers as possible to ensure that users themselves have choices. Whether they are paid-for or zero-rated or some other form of service, it’s important to ensure sufficient diversity so no user is forced to give their data to Facebook because they’re too poor, and no user is denied access to the Internet because they are too poor. Those are both important goals that can’t be mutually exclusive and should not be played out against each other.

Do you think companies who provide such models should be under public scrutiny and if yes, how could that be achieved?

I am not sure if it’s a question of public scrutiny. At this point, the development of these business models and the regulatory regime is so diverse and affects so many different parts of the world that it’s very difficult to identify the perfect solution, such as a specific piece of legislation.

The onus is both on the international development community and specifically on the part of this community looking at digital technologies to really look harder and to push harder for ways for people to get real access to the Internet, not just a few websites, but the whole Internet. There is this wonderful phrase by Nigerian web activist Nnenna Nwakanma: “All the Internet. All the people. All the time.”That should be the goal.

Ben Wagner

Ben Wagner

Ben Wagner, PhD, is a visiting professor in international relations at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań in Poland. He is the director of the German-based Centre for Internet & Human Rights (CIHR) and supervises all its research projects. His research focuses on communication ruptures, digital rights and the Internet in foreign policy.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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