Brett Solomon, executive director and co-founder of Access Now, invited nearly 30 Yale Law students and community members to discuss internet rights on Tuesday.
The Information Society Project and Wikimedia/Yale Law School Initiative on Intermediaries and Information sponsored the talk. Since its founding in 2009, Access Now — a nonprofit organization that works to defend and extend digital rights around the world — has engaged in policy efforts and grant-making to support human rights through increased media access. In collaboration with the international #KeepItOn movement, Solomon’s organization has identified, documented and verified internet shutdowns. Internet shutdowns — often coordinated by countries’ governments — occur during protests, elections and other tense moments of political activity, according to Solomon. With 196 shutdowns documented across 35 countries in 2018, Solomon said Access Now hopes to use the data they have collected to keep the internet open during times of crisis.
“An internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of the network that renders communication channel inaccessible or effectively unusable for a specific population or region with intent of exerting control over the free flow of information,” said Solomon, who also hosts RightsCon — Access Now’s annual summit on digital human rights.
Solomon opened the talk by asking attendees whether internet access constitutes a human right.
Most attendees answered in the affirmative and argued that internet access is necessary for political participation, education and civic duty as well as access to government services.
“I don’t think internet shutdowns are ever acceptable,” said Eric Kim ’22, who attended the talk. “Internet access is crucial to communication, education and healthcare.”
Audience members also shared their experiences in internet shutdowns in countries such as Iran and Benin. Solomon focused specifically on recent internet shutdowns in Hong Kong and Iran, both of which are experiencing wide-scale protests.
“Last week, 100 people in the Iranian city of Mahshahr were killed,” Solomon said. “An internet shutdown allowed this to happen because human rights abuses happen in the darkness, and internet shutdowns are the ultimate form of darkness.”
Solomon also said that out of around 200 cases of internet shutdowns, governments facing the opposition only acknowledged such occurrences in 77 cases.
Solomon cited several examples of governments using shutdowns to silence journalists, bloggers and civil society groups. He cited the challenges of proactively identifying internet shutdowns and encouraging governments to avoid them, but he also shared a few successful case studies conducted in Nigeria and Senegal.
In Nigeria, for example, the electoral commission, regulators, government representatives, Facebook and civil society groups met before a recent election and committed the Nigerian government to not shutting down the internet.
Solomon also asked attendees if there is ever a justification for a shutdown.
After conversing with audience members, Solomon said that Access Now has not “found a situation in which it is proportionate and necessary … to have an internet shutdown.”
Yale’s Wikimedia Fellow and Wikipedia-Yale Law School Initiative leader Michael Karanicolas said he valued Solomon’s “perspective on the human rights impact of internet shutdowns.”
“As the Wikimedia Fellow, an important part of my work here at Yale is to promote civil society and advocacy perspectives related to keeping the internet free and open, and exposing students to the ways that their education and energy can be applied to impact positive change,” Karanicolas said. “Having Brett here to talk about the incredible work that Access Now does to support freedom of expression and access to the internet is a great contribution to that discussion.”
Solomon plans to continue his fight for democracy. After Hillary Clinton denounced internet shutdowns in 2016, Solomon tried to create an international coalition called Presidents against Shutdowns. While initial efforts were not fruitful, he said that he wants to pursue this idea in the coming years.
As 2020 approaches, his organizations look to be especially proactive.
“Shutdowns happen in context of a moment of heightened political activity … and may be an early indicator of election irregularity,” Solomon said. “The most significant one that you see is the moment of election, something that will happen across the globe in 2020.”
The Information Society Project was founded in 1997 by Yale Law professor Jack Balkin.
Samuel Turner | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Dec. 17: This article has been updated to accurately reflect Solomon’s comments about internet access as a human right.