In a landmark UN authored paper, a group of leading experts have said that forcing the shutdown of internet access is impermissible under international human rights law — even during times of war and conflict.
The coalition of rights experts, including the UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye, said in a declaration released Monday that any effort to restrict access to the internet “can never be justified under human rights law.”
That includes forcing the shutdown of networks, filtering and censoring content, and the physical takeover of broadcast stations.
Although internet “kill switches” are rare, they have increasingly been used by both democratic and emerging states, particularly during uprisings, protests, and civil unrest.
The paper comes in the wake of revelations The United States has implemented such a kill switch on cell phone networks, while the United Kingdom runs an extensive censorship program against pornography and a questionable list of sites whose inclusion cannot be articulated.
Internet shutdowns have also come in Burundi, a small African country, amid protests over the president’s bid for a third term, which the opposition says is unconstitutional. Officials in the country ordered the shutdown of social media services, a move that provoked a highly critical response from privacy group Access.
U.S. officials are themselves in the midst of defending shutting down cell service in San Francisco’s rail system during a 2011 protest.
The released declaration also added, in the wake of disclosures detailing the U.S. government’s intelligence gathering efforts, that mass surveillance is “inherently disproportionate,” and a violation of privacy and freedom of expression.
It remains to be seen if any politicians in the United States will take note of these issues as we move towards more, not less, surveillance.