Internet shutdowns are usually imposed by the government, and they get to decide how long the shutdown will continue. In some countries, the shutdown can last up to days and months. However, are they legal? Can the government do so? What kind of impact does such a shutdown impose on society? Such shutdowns are usually done on purpose and include any kind of internet or electronic means of communication. Society as a whole has lived its life in fear because of being cut down from other parts of the world. Such shutdowns are against various international human rights laws, yet these incidents continue to happen. In this article, we will discuss various Internet shutdowns that took place around the globe and their legal implications.
“Internet shutdowns are deliberate disruptions 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. They can affect mobile internet, broadband internet, or both. On September 23, 2023, the Manipur government announced the restoration of full internet access, attributing it to “improved” law and order. This ended India’s second-longest internet blackout, which had stretched for over 143 days since May 3. The news was greeted with relief by citizens — from students planning their return to Manipur to aid workers scrambling for essential supplies.”
These shutdowns are usually imposed during heightened tensions within a state or country. These would include uncontrollable protests which lead to damage to public property, unsafe for citizens to roam outside their homes at these times. Police are highly vigilant and often attack back if they are not able to control a violent protest or crowd. For example: George Floyd protests, and the internet shutdown in Gaza and Kashmir to name a few instances. The reasons in favour of internet shutdown are that:
- They prevent people from spreading hate speech or bogus news which only causes more disturbance and panic among citizens.
- Helps maintain law and order, in some instances, protests only lead to disruption of national security and public order.
- Internet shutdown not only helps a country from internal threats but also from external threats.
- Internet shutdown also prevents any objectionable images or videos from being circulated in the internet that might or might not harm women and children and might also aim at weaker sections of society.
“In Myanmar, internet access was shut down as tanks, helicopters and soldiers took control of all levers of power during the military coup of February 1, 2021. The junta imposed rolling nationwide internet blackouts and blocked access to social media and messaging platforms in what U.N. experts have decried as an attempt to establish a “digital dictatorship.” Rakhine state, largely populated by marginalized ethnic groups, has experienced years-long shutdowns since 2019.
An expert on digital rights in Myanmar, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the restrictions have had a severe impact on many freedoms and curtailed the human rights of over 50 million people in Myanmar, including the right to safety, security, health, education, food, shelter, livelihood and freedom of expression.
“Internet shutdown has also had a great impact on the work of journalists and researchers who are documenting human rights violations. They rely on communications with local sources, who are currently experiencing the conflict in those areas,” the expert said.”
The Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Internet shutdowns: trends, causes, legal implications and impacts on a range of human rights, state that:
- Hospitals being unable to contact their doctors in cases of emergency, voters being deprived of information about candidates, handicraft makers being cut off from customers, and potentially facing imminent economic ruin, peaceful protesters who fall under violent attack being unable to call for help, students missing entrance exams for academic programmes and refugees being unable to access information on the risks that they face owing to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic are just some of the situations confronted when an Internet and telecommunications services shutdown occurs.
- Shutdowns often include complete blocks of Internet connectivity or accessibility of the affected services. However, governments increasingly resort to throttling bandwidth or limiting mobile service to 2G, which, while nominally maintaining access, renders it extremely difficult to make meaningful use of the Internet. In particular, bandwidth throttling interferes with the ability to share and watch video footage and live streams. Another intervention is to limit the availability of some websites and services, restricting access to certain communications channels while continuing to shutdown access to the rest of the internet.
- Access to the Internet is widely recognized as an indispensable enabler of a broad range of human rights. While Internet shutdowns deeply affect many human rights, they most immediately affect freedom of expression and access to information – one of the foundations of free and democratic societies and an indispensable condition for the full development of the person. It is a touchstone for all other rights guaranteed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Any restriction on freedom of expression constitutes a serious curtailment of human rights.
- Beginning in 2016, the Human Rights Council has unequivocally and strongly condemned Internet shutdowns. The High Commissioner has repeatedly expressed her concerns about Internet shutdowns and has urged States to avoid implementing such measures, in particular during assemblies. The Human Rights Committee has taken a very critical stance on shutdowns; in its general comment No. 34 (2011), the Committee indicated that generic bans on the operation of certain sites and systems were not compatible with article 19 (3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“Events in Russia have put a finer point on internet shutdown trends. On March 4, 2022, Roskomnadzor, the Russian internet regulator, announced that it would block Facebook and Twitter and would ban new uploads to TikTok.3 On March 14, it added Instagram to the banned list.4 Russian authorities have also restricted access to a slew of news websites, including the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Voice of America. Roskomnadzor claimed these measures were enacted in response to new limits imposed by platforms on Russian propaganda outlets—accusing Facebook of “discrimination.”5 The Kremlin’s crackdown is an ominous signal about where the shutdown struggle is headed in authoritarian countries.” 
Although there might be advantageous factors during an internet shutdown, does not mean they are all good for society. Internet shutdowns actively undermine democracy and as such there is no one to hold accountable. Prevents citizens from checking up on their family or loved ones about their safety. It is easy for authoritarian or dictatorship to silence critics and many heinous crimes will not be known to the public that might take place. As such, an internet shutdown does not necessarily curb the problem within a state. It merely keeps it hidden from the larger public.
 Internet Shutdowns and Their Ramifications (drishtiias.com)  Activists: Internet shutdowns violate human rights | OHCHR  A/HRC/50/55 (un.org)  Human Rights Council resolution 47/16; and A/66/290, para. 12.  Human Rights Committee, general comment No. 34 (2011), para. 2; and Human Rights Council resolution 44/12.  Manfred Nowak, U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: CCPR Commentary, 2nd ed. (N.P. Engel Publishers, 2005).  Human Rights Committee, general comment No. 34 (2011), para. 24.  See, e.g. the Human Rights Council resolutions on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, 32/13, 38/7 and 47/16, and Council resolution 44/12, on freedom of opinion and expression.  See A/HRC/44/24.  Human Rights Committee, general comment No. 34 (2011), para. 43.  Government Internet Shutdowns Are Changing. How Should Citizens and Democracies Respond? - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace