Last week, 63 million people were cut off from internet and mobile phone access in Gujarat, India. This didn’t stop Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi proclaiming over the weekend that communications access and, in particular, internet access, is the next important step in development. Modi didn’t seem bothered by the fact that, following mass demonstrations, a population the size of the UK lost all phone and internet communications for the second time in less than a month. The world barely noticed.
India is not alone. In Syria, the internet is used as a weapon of war – the disconnection of communications plays a central role in the conflict. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, similarly, connections were cut following mass demonstrations against the government.
And before anyone suggests that only less developed countries resort to drastic disconnection, similar measures have been discussed in case of an “emergency” in the US, UK and Germany. The British government discussed quite extensively whether to shut down various communication channels during the 2011 riots.
Pakistan spearheads crackdown
Pakistan bears the dubious honour of leading the world in government-ordered communications shutdowns, with at least 24 large-scale disconnections since 2012. Marked like few other nations by the global war on terror, even the highest ranks of government in Pakistan complain about the overwhelming power of the military. National security measures frequently go overboard, and the human rights of the populations affected are only insufficiently considered.
Some 80% of people in Pakistan have mobile phone access. One in four holds a smartphone. When communications are disconnected, the economy is seriously affected, and mobility and social relations are severed. Neither ambulances nor fire departments can be contacted quickly. Despite the impressive resilience of the Pakistani people, the social consequences cannot be overlooked.
A new research study between London, Islamabad and Berlin found that, when communications are disconnected, the same regions already affected by other forms of exclusion are the worst hit. Large political rallies, but also regions seen as leaning towards the Taliban, are the most frequently affected by shutdowns in Pakistan. Since society constitutes through communication, for these communities, prevention of communication also constitutes exclusion from society.
Disconnecting the disadvantaged
This logic extends to the waves of refugees moving across Europe. The issue here is that people don’t just need the internet to “phone home” – they need access to become part of European society. The internet is used to access education, entertainment and culture. It grounds social participation, and is the mechanism for accessing many key services. In the current crisis, the physical separation of refugees is augmented by digital separation.
“All the internet. All the people. All the time.” Nigerian web activist Nnenna Nwakanma’s call to action is simple to state, but hard to accomplish. Every crisis offers a new excuse for restrictions, and every “development problem” invites post-colonial reflex. Take Internet.org, the initiative proudly championed by Facebook and partners. Facebook’s offer – recently partly rebranded Free Basics, in an effort to take the sting out of controversy about walled gardens, privacy and security – has more to do with access to Facebook than to the internet, and is a clever advertising campaign for Facebook’s rollout in emerging markets. But we’ve yet to see any serious attempt, notwithstanding Zuckerberg’s weekend celebrity appeal with Bono, to resolving deep challenges of universal access.