Arguably, the main function of any government is to ensure the survival of the state and its citizens through economic, military, or political measures. That is why, in times of war, or imminent threat to national security, governments are legally entitled to adopt extraordinary measures, like restricting freedom of movement and communication, freezing of assets, or confiscation of property. Such measures are deemed necessary in a state of emergency to safeguard the safety of citizens, and are only meant to apply during the time of crisis. In recent years, the internet and access to digital media have proven to be powerful tools for political mobilization, and the organization of often-violent political protests. The clearest example of such mobilisation is the “Arab Spring”, where citizens through the Arab world, and Iran, used social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to mobilize and organize massive and violent protests that resulted in the overthrowing of several governments in the region. Given the proven potential of the Internet to facilitate the organization of such violence and disorder, should governments be given the prerogative to disrupt internet service when national security is threatened?
Internet access is not a fundamental right as recognized by any major human rights convention, if it can be called a right at all. Even if we accept that people should have a right to internet access, in times of war or civil unrest the government should be able to abridge lesser rights for the sake of something that is critical to the survival of the state, like national security. After all, in a war zone few rights survive or can be upheld at all. Preventing such an outcome at the expense of the temporary curtailment of some lesser rights is entirely justified. Under current law, in most states, only the most fundamental of rights, like the right to life, prohibition against torture, slavery, and the right to a fair trial are regarded as inalienable.
 Article 15 of the European Convention on Human rights: “In time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation any High Contracting Party may take measures derogating from its obligations under this Convention to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, provided that such measures are not inconsistent with its other obligations under international law.” http://www.hri.org/docs/ECHR50.html
In July 2012, The United Nations Human Rights Council endorsed a resolution upholding the principle of freedom of expression and information on the internet. In a special report, it also “called upon all states to ensure that Internet access is maintained at all times, including during times of political unrest”. While access to the internet has not yet had time to establish itself legally as a human right, there are compelling reasons to change its legal status, and the UN is leading the charge. Even before internet access is recognized as a human right the idea that national security should take precedence over ‘lesser rights’ is wrong; states should not survive at the expense of the rights of their citizens. States exist to protect their citizens not harm them.
Historically, governments have always controlled the access to information and placed restriction on media during times of war. This is an entirely reasonable policy and is done for a number of reasons: to sustain morale and prevent predominantly negative stories from the battlefield reaching the general public, and to intercept propaganda from the enemy, which might endanger the war effort. For example, both Bush administrations imposed media blackouts during wartime over the return of the bodies of dead American soldiers at Dover airport. The internet is simply a new medium of transmitting information, and the same principles can be applied to its regulation, especially when the threat to national security is imminent, like in the case of disseminating information for the organization of a violent protest.
 Payne, Kenneth. 2005. “The Media as an Instrument of War”. Parameters, Spring 2005, pp. 81-93.
Historical precedent does not apply to the internet. It is very different to media reporting during times of unrest; the internet is not just a means of disseminating information but also for many people their main form of communication; the U.S. government has never tried to ban people from using telephones. There are severe downsides to the censorship of information during times of war or civil unrest, the most notable one being that it is used to hide the real cost and consequences of war from the population which is expected to support it. Conversely, in a world where every mobile phone is now connected to a global network, people all around the world can have access to an unparalleled amount of information from the field. Curtailing such internet access is to their detriment.
The internet can be used as a tool to create an imminent threat to the public. If public officials had information that a massive protest is being organized, which could spiral into violence and endanger the safety of the public, it would be irresponsible for the government not to try to prevent such a protest. Governments are entrusted with protecting public safety and security, and not preventing such a treat would constitute a failure in the performance of their duties. An example of this happening was the use first of Facebook and twitter and then of Blackberry messenger to organise and share information on the riots in London in the summer of 2011.
Other means can be employed to ensure the safety of the population without disrupting access to the internet, like deploying security forces to make sure protests don’t get out of hand or turn violent. In fact, being able to monitor online activity through social media like Facebook and Twitter might actually aid, rather than hinder law enforcement in ensuring the safety of the public. London’s police force, the Metropolitan Police, in the wake of the riots has are using software to monitor social media to predict where social disorder may take place.
Internet access is a “facilitative right”, in that it facilitates access to the exercise of many other rights: like freedom of expression, information, and assembly. It is a “gateway right”. Possessing a right is only as valuable as your capacity to exercise it. A government cannot claim to protect freedom of speech or expression, and freedom of information, if it is taking away from its citizens the tools to access them. And that is exactly what the disruption of internet service does. Internet access needs to be a protected right so that all other rights which flow from it.
The Internet is a tool of communication so it is important not just to individuals but also to communities. The internet becomes an outlet that can help to preserve groups’ culture or language and so as an enabler of this groups’ culture access to the internet may also be seen as a group right – one which would be being infringed when the state cuts off access to large numbers of individuals.
Freedom of expression, assembly, and information are important rights, but restrictions can be placed on all of them if a greater good, like public safety, is at stake. For example, one cannot use her freedom of expression to incite violence towards others and many countries regard hate speech as a crime. Therefore, if the internet is being used for such abuses of ones rights, the disruption of service, even to a large number of people, can be entirely warranted.
 Waldron, Jeremy, The Harm in Hate Speech, Harvard University Press, 8 June 2012, p.8.
The organization of public protests is an invaluable right for citizens living under the rule of oppressive regimes. Like in the case of the Arab Spring, internet access gives them the tools to mobilize, make their message heard, and demand greater freedoms. In such cases, under the guise of concern for public safety, these governments disrupt internet service in an attempt to stamp out legitimate democratic protests and stamp out the dissatisfied voices of their citizens They are concerned not for the safety of the public, but to preserve their own grasp on power. A good example of this are the actions of the government of Myanmar when in 2007 in response to large scale protests the government cut internet access to the whole country in order to prevent reports of the government’s crackdown getting out. Establishing internet access as a fundamental right at international level would make it clear to such governments that they cannot simply cut access as a tactic to prevent legitimate protests against them.
Democratic change can come about in a variety of ways. Violent public protests are only one such way, and probably the least desirable one. And now, with access to social media nearly universally available, such protests can be organized faster, on a larger, more dangerous scale than ever before. It encourages opposition movements and leaders in such countries to turn away from incremental, but peaceful changes through political negotiations, and to appeal to mass protests instead, thus endangering the life or their supporters and that of the general public. Governments that respond to violence by cutting off access are not responding with repression but simply trying to reduce the violence. Cutting internet access is a peaceful means of preventing organized violence that potentially saves lives by preventing confrontation between violent groups and riot police.
In the past, horrific crimes could be committed in war zones without anyone ever knowing about it, or with news of it reaching the international community with a significant time lag, when it was too late to intervene. But with the presence of internet connected mobile devices everywhere, capable of uploading live footage within seconds of an event occurring, the entire world can monitor and find out what is happening on the scene, in real time. It lets repressive regimes know the entire world is watching them, that they cannot simply massacre their people with impunity, and it creates evidence for potential prosecutions if they do. It, therefore, puts pressure on them to respect the rights of their citizens during such precarious times. To prevent governments from violently stamping out public political dissent without evidence, internet access must be preserved, especially in times of war or political unrest.
Being able to witness atrocities from the field in real time does not change the international community’s capacity or political willingness to intervene in such situations. If anything, it has had the unfortunate side effect of desensitizing international public opinion to the horrors of war and conflicts, like the one in Syria where there have been thousands of videos showing the actions of the Syrian government but this has not resulted in action from the international community. The onslaught of gruesome, graphic imagery has made people more used to witnessing such scenes from afar and less likely to be outraged and to ask their governments to intervene.
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