A Case for ‘Digital Refugees’ in the Age of Internet Shutdowns

Digital technology is briskly diversifying and metamorphizing the socio-economic structure in both developed and developing countries. We live in the new digital age, where social transformation is manoeuvred by technological development and digitalization. From the gamut of approaches to technology and policy, the Internet is now crucial to most socio-economic activities. 

The intumescing footprint of the internet has also made it a platform to voice against anti-democratic practices. Often the state as an operative of social change infuses its dystopian elements in the form of restrictive legislation in a regulatory environment. Digital regulation has also led to several instances of internet abuses and illegitimate but authorised perversions of the internet has fuelled internet shutdowns and related law and order situation. 

According to the Internet Society, “An Internet shutdown is a calculated disruption of Internet-based communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unavailable, often to exert control over the flow of information.” It can happen across the country at the national level or at a regional level where a targeted area is unable to access the internet. 

Internet shutdowns gathered international traction during the Egyptian revolution of 2011. This decade has witnessed the rise of Internet shutdowns as a tool for political purposes. The frequency of shutdowns has risen disproportionately to its expansion as a political weapon. According to Access Now Report, 2018 alone witnessed 196 Internet shutdowns, almost a double growth from 106 in 2017 and 75 in 2016. These shutdowns have intersectional repercussions having technical, economic, and human rights impacts. Among the socio-cultural impact, shutdowns also undermine citizens’ trust in the Internet and the reliability of exigent online government services. 

This decade has witnessed the rise of Internet shutdowns as a political weapon. August 5, 2020, marked one year of internet shutdown in Kashmir, with some relaxations notified a few weeks back. June 21, 2020, marked one year of targeted internet shutdown in the conflict zone in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Restoration of the internet plays a paramount role in reinstating basic human rights of economic harmony and democratic freedoms. Internet shutdowns also open up questions on the scope for democratic regulation in the digital space. 

Shutdowns have also pressured the legislators to take into account related security, geopolitical and economic imperatives. Digital disruptions have an impact beyond macro-economic impacts affecting businesses and MSMEs. State-sponsored shutdowns also impact the technical, economic, and human rights discourse. It can also be suspected that the reverberations of temporary shutdowns grow larger in democracies with repressive peculiarities. 

The severity of these shutdowns intensifies when these shutdowns are selectively guillotined in places where a marginalized vulnerable ethnolinguistic or religious group forms a substantial part of the population. The global trend of digital discrimination in access to communication technology inordinately affects disenfranchised socio-ethnic groups. Targeted digital repression that disproportionately affects a marginalized community ordains a form of collective punishment.

In 2016, during the popular mobilisation in Ethiopia in the region of Oromia, the unprecedented wave of large-scale unrest, motivated by the grievances of the Oromo ethnic group, the government responded to protests with a heavy hand and precipitated prolonged social media shutdowns. A state of emergency was extended until the end of the year with thousands of causalities in the Oromia region, as well as nationwide disruptions and slowdowns. In 2017, the Cameroon Government extended targeted blackouts in two Anglophone regions, where opposition to President Paul Biya was emerging. 

The burgeoning of targeted and large-scale shutdowns has given rise to threats of social security and physical integrity. This has also given emergence to the previously unknown “Internet refugees” or “digital refugees” in affected areas. It has been documented that some of those killed by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in the Borno State in Nigeria in the 2013 Benisheik massacre had travelled to the border town of Damaturu in the Yobe State to make phone calls after cell phone service in the region were blocked during a military offensive against the insurgents.

In the current structure of international refugee law, according to the 1951 Refugee Convention, to qualify as a ‘refugee’, the element of ‘fear of persecution’ is rudimentary.  The term “Refugee” as defined in Article A(1) of the 1951 Refugee Convention, applies to any person, “who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” A general definition of the term refugee is averse to the risk of future unpredictability. 

Digital refugees, like climate refugees, is not a legal term. However, according to transnational law and refugee law jurisprudence, the conventional contours may also be expanded in case of “nexus dynamics” between the fear of persecution and cause of fear, i.e. lack of access to the internet in facilitating violence and persecution. The state-sponsored disruption of technologies accompanied by acts of terror targeting is threatening an individual’s safety. This digital exclusion and violence-inducing human displacements have given birth to a new class of vulnerable under the bracket of ‘digital refugees’ in affected areas. 

With over 100 million refugees, stateless persons due to war, oppression, economic collapse, climate-induced displacement worldwide, individual’s lack of access to technology further deepens the underlying issues of these displacement horrors. Shutdowns also have an impact on humanitarian practices, as ICT is a fundamental tool to address the refugee crisis. Policymakers will have to introspect the scalability and sustainability of digital disruptions and speculate solutions about emerging issues.

India has seen over 370 shutdowns ordered by the Centre and various State governments since 2014. Out of which nearly 100 shutdowns were reported in 2019. The institutional framework of digital regulation has had a huge geo-economic impact. It is estimated that in 2019 alone these disruptions have led to a loss of over $1.3 billion. India has predominately used network disruptions to prevent terror activities, maintain peace and public order, protect security forces, etc. However, network disruptions should maintain public accountability by establishing the reasonability test of restrictions on freedom of expression found in the Constitutional structure. 

In a Kafkaesque framework, network disruptions are used to silence political opposition and to limit peaceful protests. Philosophized in the principles of international human rights law, the restriction of Internet access must be limited to achieve a legitimate aim. While using internet shutdowns as a policy tool, principles of proportionality, collateral damages, efficiency and necessity assessments should guide the decisions of any policymaker. The proportionality of shutdowns should be assessed on the specificity of the objective and to ensure that the measure does not infringe the rights of others than the targeted persons. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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