On the same day that the UN declared internet access a human right, Syria went off the grid. Seventy per cent of its networks were withdrawn from global routers over the course of half an hour. The country went dark as security forces opened fire on protestors.
Though Internet connection resumed the following day, suspicions were rife that connections had been disabled deliberately on a Friday — the day in the week favoured by activists due to large numbers of people already congregating for prayers. Another outage is anticipated today.
Such shutdowns have become a pattern, drawing special concern for the special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue. In his report to the UN, La Rue stresses the unique status of the internet. As the principal forum for dissent, it has become key to the self-determination of individuals and societies.
The recent uprisings in the Arab world illustrate as much. In Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, state authorities blocked Facebook and Twitter and cut internet access altogether. The motivation is obvious, given that social media not only consolidates protest but broadcasts it to the world.
According to Damascus-based dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh, the internet 'is the most important and most secure means of contact between people'. Skype, for example, helps activists avoid monitored phone lines. Video reports are uploaded without interference from censors. Tweets fill in the gaps left by detained journalists. Hence, La Rue insists, the internet must be maintained at all times 'including during times of political unrest'.
He probably could have said 'especially during times of political unrest', for it is during such times that state instruments are brought heavily to bear on demonstrators. A 'kill-switch' that isolates a country from the rest of the world during upheaval is rather alarming. As a community, we count on the observation of third parties to inhibit or curtail violence, and bring perpetrators to justice.
La Rue is right to draw our attention to the increasing tendency to criminalise legitimate online expression. Over 100 bloggers were imprisoned last year on charges related to their content. He also points to state-sanctioned cyber-attacks on blogs and websites that are critical of those in power.
Apart from undermining political transparency, such moves contravene article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which enshrines the right to 'seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds'.
The Covenant does not discriminate between methods of transmission, and cites oral, written, artistic forms or 'any other media of ... choice'. Declaring internet access a human right can thus be seen as identifiying a medium that the Covenant authors could not foresee, but accommodated in language.
On the other hand, La Rue's report invites questions about what difference it makes on the ground. Bahrain, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen are legally bound to uphold the Covenant, having variously ratified or acceded to it. Yet they contravened its provisions, even before the uprisings.
The issue of state-owned or centralised control of internet infrastructure exacerbates the problem. Freedom House, the renowned watchdog organisation, recently highlighted Jordan, Russia, Thailand, Venezuela and Zimbabwe as 'countries at risk' in this regard.
So what can be gained from this report? By placing the internet within the sphere of freedom of opinion and speech, the UN is making overt the idea that internet users have the same protections accorded to other media. It gives the Human Rights Committee, the body that monitors the ICCPR, an explicit language to hold governments to account.
In framing the internet as a catalyst for social and individual transformation, La Rue also recognises that limited access to it has become a layer of disadvantage. Pre-existing inequalities are intensified, for instance, when there are 72 internet users per hundred inhabitants in developed countries, while there are only 10 per hundred in the African region. The UN calls on all governments to take concrete steps to bridge this digital divide.
That internet access is a human right means that all are entitled to the unique benefits that it offers, especially in terms of the ways it facilitates our fuller development as persons. We saw in the Arab Spring how this technology has become the platform for our human longings for dignity and peace through justice. How, then, can we deny it elsewhere or deprive anyone of it?
Fatima Measham is a writer and former state school teacher. She blogs at thisiscomplicated.wordpress.com