Silencing Voices: The Escalation of Internet Shutdowns Worldwide and Legal Responses to Protect Human Rights

 TOPIC: Silencing Voices: The Escalation of Internet Shutdowns Worldwide and Legal Responses to Protect Human Rights



  • An internet shutdown typically involves the deliberate disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or unusable. These shutdowns are often employed to exert control over the free flow of information and frequently target specific populations or geographic areas. They are sometimes referred to as “blackouts” or “kill switches” and can take various forms, including full and localized shutdowns, bandwidth throttling, and service-based blocking of two-way communication platforms.
  • Internet shutdowns are frequently utilized by governments to suppress opposition and stifle dissent, particularly during critical periods such as elections or mass protests. However, it is important to note that these shutdowns pose severe threats to people’s rights and are contrary to international human rights standards.
  • Disturbingly, the prevalence of internet shutdowns has been on the rise. In 2021, the “Keep It On” coalition reported at least 182 incidents of internet shutdowns around the world, compared to 76 in 2016. These figures underscore a troubling trend in which governments seek to silence dissenting voices, control information, and curb freedom of expression. Equally concerning is the extended duration of some shutdowns. At the time of this update, an ongoing shutdown in the Tigray region of Ethiopia had lasted nearly two years, while a shutdown in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area persisted for almost four years between 2016 and 2021, seriously compromising education, healthcare, and business sectors.

     Legality, Necessity, and Proportionality:

  • To challenge internet shutdowns, it is crucial to establish that these measures violate the right to freedom of expression, access to information, and other fundamental rights, such as the right to health and education. Internet shutdowns indeed infringe upon the full enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression. However, proving this is insufficient. The right to freedom of expression can only be limited when such limitations are defined by law and are necessary to ensure respect for the rights and reputation of others, or for the protection of national security, public order, public health, or morals.
  • Governments frequently invoke “national security” or “public order” to justify internet shutdowns. When challenging these shutdowns in court, it is essential to conduct a thorough limitations analysis to demonstrate that a right has been violated and that the limitation does not meet the criteria of Article 19(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In response to the internet shutdown crisis in Kashmir in 2019, UN Special Rapporteurs contended that internet and telecommunication network shutdowns, without government justification, violate the fundamental principles of necessity and proportionality.

Recent Examples of Litigation Relating to Internet Shutdowns:

Despite these clear international standards, some states continue to argue that restricting the internet is necessary and proportionate to safeguard national security or public order. Fortunately, there have been instances where courts have ruled that such justifications do not warrant internet shutdowns, and in some cases, the threat of litigation itself has proven successful.

  • Zimbabwe

In January 2019, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) and the Media Institute of Southern Africa-Zimbabwe Chapter (MISA-Zimbabwe) filed an urgent chamber application challenging ongoing internet shutdowns in Zimbabwe at the time. The High Court granted an interim order, requiring the mobile operator to immediately and unconditionally resume full services, ensuring access to the internet.

  • Papua and West Papua

In 2020, the Jakarta State Administrative Court (PTUN) ruled on an internet shutdown ordered by the Indonesian government in Papua and West Papua in 2019 in response to widespread protests. The government argued that the shutdown was necessary to prevent the spread of fake news during the protests. However, the Court, in a case brought by Indonesian civil society organizations, found that the shutdown violated the law and that the government had failed to prove that Indonesia was in a state of emergency requiring an internet shutdown.

  • Togo

In 2017, the Togolese government enacted an internet shutdown in response to protests against President Faure Gnassingbé’s pursuit of a fourth term in power. Several local civil society organizations, including Amnesty International Togo, and an individual blogger activist, applied to the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), arguing a violation of Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. They contended that the shutdown hindered their ability to carry out their work and damaged their reputation and finances.

  • Kashmir

A comprehensive case dealing with internet shutdowns is Bhasin v Union of India; Azad v Union of India, stemming from the 2019 disconnection of internet services in parts of Kashmir. The petitioners approached the Supreme Court seeking an order to set aside all orders pertaining to the suspension of telecommunications services and to immediately restore all modes of communication, including mobile, internet, and landline services throughout Jammu and Kashmir to enable the media to practice its profession. The case raised questions about whether the government could claim an exemption from producing all shutdown-related orders and whether freedom of expression and the freedom to conduct business over the internet constituted fundamental rights under the Constitution.

Silencing Voices: The Escalation of Internet Shutdowns           Worldwide and Legal Responses to Protect Human Rights
Silencing Voices: The Escalation of Internet Shutdowns Worldwide and Legal Responses to Protect Human Rights


In the age of digital information, internet shutdowns are a mounting concern with significant implications for human rights and free expression. While governments continue to employ these measures in the name of national security or public order, legal battles are shedding light on their disproportionate and often unnecessary nature. Recent cases from around the world, from Zimbabwe to Kashmir, serve as powerful reminders that the fight to maintain open access to the internet and protect fundamental rights is far from over. As technology and connectivity remain integral to our daily lives, these legal battles not only safeguard our rights but also serve as a testament to the enduring strength of human determination in the face of digital repression. The struggle against internet shutdowns is an ongoing one, a battle for the heart of our digital age, and the outcome has lasting consequences for our global society.

       Author – Suhavi Kaur, a Student of  University institute of legal studies

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