Security v Access: The Impact of Mobile Network Shutdowns on Human Rights Case Study: Telenor Pakistan

A new report published by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), with support from the CGCS Internet Policy Observatory, highlights the practice of mobile network shutdowns in Pakistan and the wider implications for human rights of such practices by governments around the world. Click here to read the full report.

While many States recognize the economic and social benefits of investing in and improving access to Information and Communication Technology (ICTs), some are reaching for the communications “off” switch at times of civil unrest, or in the name of national security. Although country-wide network shutdowns on the scale of Egypt during the Arab Spring in 2011 are extremely rare, shutdowns may target a specific geographical area of mobile coverage, internet access, or a specific service such as Facebook or WhatsApp. This can potentially impact millions of people, as happened in the Gujarat state in India recently.

However, network shutdowns adversely affect a range of human rights, and in the view of many experts, such shutdowns are neither necessary nor proportionate responses to potential violent activities. Experts are concerned that network shutdowns are becoming the norm, rather than an exception. They say shutdowns are being utilized as the main strategy to curb terrorism, when instead states can do much more to improve other methods of investigation.

Network shutdowns indeed affect freedom of expression, but they also impact other rights, including life, access to health services, education, and work. In particular, IHRB’s report stresses the importance of ensuring access to emergency services (ambulance, police and fire) even at the time of a shutdown so that these services can continue to operate. The report also highlights how disruption has a wider impact on companies, schools, universities and colleges, and online commercial and public services.

Companies have a legal obligation to comply with and support the State’s law enforcement efforts where there is an imminent threat of violence. Most national laws do allow for governments to take control of communications networks during a national emergency, but the situations in which governments can exercise this power are often vague. The request process to telecommunications operators may be unclear, execution is technically complex, and there is virtually no transparency.  In addition, it is still a difficult topic for telecommunications operators to discuss publicly because the issue of national security is involved.

An IHRB researcher spent three days embedded with the telecommunication operator Telenor Pakistan’s headquarters in Islamabad to conduct research into the context of network disconnections and to document how Telenor Pakistan receives and acts on requests from the Government to initiate network shutdowns. In addition, IHRB partnered with the Islamabad-based digital rights organization, Bytes For All, and the Berlin-based Centre for Internet and Human Rights (CIHR), to conduct on the ground research into the impacts of network shutdowns in Pakistan. Bytes For All and CIHR developed a survey, which aimed to ascertain how people perceive shutdowns and how shutdowns impacted day-to-day life, work and study. On March 23, 2015, a national holiday in Pakistan, there was a mobile and internet shutdown in the capital Islamabad and surrounding area of Rawalpindi. Bytes for All researchers collected 190 survey responses which feature throughout the paper.

The results of these surveys served as a catalyst for further research into identified impacts, as well as recommendations to mitigate the adverse impacts on fundamental rights and scope for further in-depth research.  One of the key lessons of the report is the need for a more concerted effort to implement a streamlined process for requesting network shutdowns. From the analysis of the process of requesting network shutdowns in Pakistan, IHRB’s report recommends that any process for requesting network shutdowns include the following key characteristics:

  • Governments and ICT companies should refrain from authorizing network shutdowns impacting the entire country.
  • Network shutdowns should only be invoked in cases of real and imminent threats to national security or national emergencies, and requests should specify the reason(s) for such disruptions.
  • National law should be in place to regulate network shutdowns including which bodies or agencies are authorized to make requests.
  • All shutdown requests to network operators should be made in writing. The request should specify the duration and geographical reach of the shutdown as well as the reason, and demonstrating direct material necessity.
  • Shutdowns should be limited in duration and geographical area.
  • Whenever possible, the public should be informed of network shutdowns, including their duration, geography, and services affected.
  • All network disruptions should be logged/recorded, and the government should publish annually a list of all shutdowns.
  • Access to and communication with emergency services should be guaranteed to the public at all times, including during network shutdowns.
  • Legislation concerning network shutdowns should be subject to ongoing review, including reviews by independent oversight bodies of specific events and disruptions.

Overall, while shutdowns have become more targeted and less frequent in Pakistan, there are concerns. The trend of blocking communication services for security reasons may be set to increase in scope from mobile phone services and mobile data to include Wi-Fi networks. In addition to mobile telephone communications, services such as Skype and messaging applications such as Whatsapp and Blackberry Message (BBM) may also be under threat, as demonstrated by recent Government plans to temporarily ban Whatsapp, and completely ban Blackberry’s secure messaging service by December 2015.

It is evident that it will be quite some time before governments completely refrain from resorting to network shutdowns and instead explore alternative solutions to national security and public safety issues, so that everyone can enjoy the rights and benefits that ICTs facilitate.


This study was published by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), with support from the CGCS Internet Policy ObservatoryClick here to read the full report.


About the Author

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Lucy Purdon, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Project Manager, joined IHRB in 2012 as a researcher on the European Commission ICT Sector Guide on Implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Lucy developed and now manages IHRB’s ICT Programme, including the Digital Dangers project, working mainly on situations where ICT companies are at risk of impacting negatively on freedom of expression and privacy. Lucy graduated with an MA in Human Rights from The Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) at the University of London. Her thesis, “Privatising Dissent,” applied the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights to the ICT sector. Prior to this, Lucy was a documentary producer/director. She also holds a First Class BA (Hons) in Film and Video from London College of Communications, University of the Arts.


Featured Photo Credit: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by NSA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

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