Business and Human Rights  |  Max Pickup

Online Censorship

In 2016 there have been 40 reported incidents of internet shutdowns that are ordered by governments.

In 2016 there have been 40 reported incidents of internet shutdowns that are ordered by governments. Information and communication technology companies that are facing reputational and financial risks carry out these shutdowns. These shutdowns have occurred all around the world in countries such as Ethiopia, India and Bahrain. This is a large rise on the 15 incidents of internet shutdowns in the previous year. Internet shutdowns prevent the promotion of human rights in the private sector. The most well known internet shutdown that occurred in 2016 took place during the failed coup in Turkey in July. During the coup d’état Twitter, YouTube and Facebook were unavailable for a couple of hours.

Vodafone faced significant public pressure after the internet was shutdown in 2011 in Egypt during the Arab Spring. Since then Vodafone has become more aware of such risks. Companies such as Vodafone should speak out more against online censorship. Large companies state that they are committed to promoting human rights and in particular the freedom of expression. Thus, companies must state when and where online censorship takes place. By raising awareness of online censorship, technology companies can put pressure on governments to not order them in future.

Governments justify online censorship due to security reasons. Whilst it is important for governments to protect their countries, this risk is often exaggerated whilst the significant impact on human rights is ignored. When the internet is censored, this makes it difficult for individuals to utilise their freedom of expression online. The use of online shutdowns by governments has been condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Council, which approved a resolution in June 2016 that supports human rights on the internet. Whilst human rights advocates have recognised the risk to business and human rights, posed by online censorship, there are others that have spoken out too.

The Global Network Initiative and the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue issued a joint statement in July 2016, which states similar concerns regarding online censorship and the risk to business and human rights. This statement states that whilst public safety and national security are important issues they risk being disproportionate. Alongside Vodafone, other large technology companies such as Orange and Nokia support this statement. One of the largest technology associations in the world, the GSM Association, issued new guidelines in July 2016 for technology companies that receive orders from the government to cease their operations.

There is a growing momentum against the rise of online censorship and it is important to keep up this momentum. ShareAction and Access Now have published an investor briefing that states why online censorship poses reputational and financial risks to investors. This briefing states how investors can influence the technology companies that they have invested in, in order to reduce such risks. The recommendations outlined in the briefing are threefold. First, investors should persuade companies to appoint an individual or committee from the Board of Directors to be responsible for risk management and policies that are related to online censorship. Second, investors should ensure that companies have a clear process for making decisions regarding operating in countries where governments are likely to shutdown the internet. Third, investors should persuade companies to be transparent about the countries where they operate in and state the governments that have requested for them to cease operations.

It is important to engage the investment community on online censorship and persuade investors to adopt the recommendations outlined in the briefing. By increasing awareness of the risks that are associated with online censorship and adopting the recommendations outlined in the briefing, technology companies can ensure that the momentum against online censorship leads to the end of online censorship around the world whilst protecting human rights.


Max Pickup, Graduate LLB Student, BPP University.