Digital democracy|Digital freedom
Broken promises: 15 countries pledge to uphold free internet, yet still impose restrictions
In our interconnected world, internet freedom is crucial, but many still face regular internet shutdowns despite government promises. The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution on human rights on the internet aims to protect and promote human rights online. Surfshark uncovers the countries that supported the resolution in 2021 but didn't stay true to their word. The data was updated on June 6th, 2023.
Mapping the countries that supported internet freedom but “broke their word”
Depending on whether a country was elected to the UN Human Rights Council at the time, there were several ways in which it could show its position on the 2021 resolution:
- Countries could support the resolution by voting in favor of it (possible only for the 47 countries that were elected to the Council at the time) or sponsoring the resolution (available to all UN countries);
- Countries could also abstain from voting (if they were elected to the Council) or remain passive (if they could not vote but also chose not to sponsor the resolution).
By looking at this data in the context of our Internet Shutdown Tracker, we could compare countries’ stances on the resolution with their internet restriction practices.
Out of the 193 UN Member States, 15 countries fell short of their promises. Despite supporting the July 2021 UN Human Rights Council resolution on promoting human rights on the internet and condemning internet shutdowns, Surfshark’s Internet Shutdown Tracker shows that these countries either had ongoing internet restrictions or disrupted internet access since then. These countries are India, Sudan, Pakistan, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Burkina Faso, Russia, Brazil, Mauritania, Senegal, Armenia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Somalia, and Ukraine.
Now, let's look at the bigger picture. 78 countries (or 40%) supported the resolution by either voting in favor of it or sponsoring it.
Interestingly, over half of the countries (111) took a passive position. They could not express their stance through voting because they were not elected to the council. However, they had the opportunity to sponsor the resolution but chose not to.
On the other hand, four countries that were part of the council decided to abstain from voting. These countries were Cameroon, China, Eritrea, and Venezuela. Their decision not to vote on the resolution raises questions about their position on promoting human rights online.
Overview of restrictions in the countries that “broke their word”
Surfshark’s Internet Shutdown Tracker reveals that there have been at least 66 internet disruptions related to political turmoil during or since the adoption of the resolution in the 15 countries that supported it but “broke their word.” 88% of these cases were new restrictions, meaning they took place after the resolution was adopted.
India leads in “breaking its word” with 21 internet disruptions since the 2021 resolution’s adoption (if we included the Jammu & Kashmir region, this number would be even higher). One of these cases in India was ongoing at the time of the resolution — the TikTok and other Chinese apps’ ban, which started in June 2020. However, the rest of the disruptions occurred after the resolution, with the first restriction imposed just two months after its adoption.
Sudan holds the second-highest number of restrictions that took place after the country supported the 2021 resolution. The first disruption occurred just three months after the resolution, coinciding with Sudan's military coup outbreak. Since then, Sudan has faced several wide-scale internet disruptions, with the most recent one recorded in April 2023 amidst an ongoing armed conflict between rival factions of military forces.
On the other hand, two countries, Nigeria and Ukraine, had ongoing restrictions at the time of the resolution's adoption but had no new restrictions since then. Nigeria had banned Twitter a month before the adoption, and the restriction lasted until January 2022. As for Ukraine, it blocked popular Russian apps back in 2017 as part of sanctions in response to the annexation of Crimea, which is still in place.
Countries that changed their stance on human rights on the internet between 2016 and 2021
The first resolution of this kind was adopted in 2012, and the July 2016 resolution was one of the first to address internet shutdowns. It is, therefore, interesting to compare Member States’ stances on the 2016 and 2021 resolutions.
Between the 2016 and 2021 resolutions, 49 countries experienced significant changes in their stance. Notably, China and Venezuela shifted from supporting the 2016 resolution to abstaining from voting on the 2021 resolution. China had an ongoing internet restriction on several social media platforms at the time of the 2016 resolution, and three other restrictions (also on social media) were recorded between 2016 and 2017, which may have influenced China’s change in position in 2021. These restrictions are still in effect.
Before 2019, Venezuela had no recorded internet restrictions. However, in 2019, Venezuela faced a presidential crisis¹, and the country witnessed a surge in internet disruptions, with 34 cases recorded that year and an additional restriction in early 2020. These disruptions involved localized internet shutdowns and restrictions on social media platforms. The political turmoil during this period may have contributed to Venezuela's change of heart in 2021.
27 countries shifted from supporting the 2016 resolution to adopting a passive position on the 2021 resolution. Surprisingly, some of these countries, including Canada, Switzerland, and Greece, had no recorded cases of internet restrictions.
On the other hand, 20 countries transitioned from a passive stance on the 2016 resolution to supporting the 2021 resolution. Notably, half of the countries that supported the 2021 resolution but imposed internet restrictions displayed this specific change in stance. These countries were Armenia, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.
Honoring internet freedom: a call to action for all nations
In a world where internet freedom is a fundamental human right, it is disheartening to witness certain countries imposing restrictions despite pledging to uphold the principles of the UN’s resolution on human rights on the internet. It's important to promote an open and accessible internet, raise awareness about violators, and pressure governments to honor their commitments.
The Human Rights Council convenes at least three regular sessions annually. The upcoming 53rd session is scheduled for the summer of 2023. While the agenda of the specific resolution is currently unknown, we will keep an eye out for any updates regarding upcoming UN resolutions on human rights on the internet.
Methodology and sources
Drawing from the official documents for the July 2021 United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution on the promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the internet, we categorized 193 UN Member States into three groups. The “Supported” category includes countries that voted in favor of the resolution and countries that sponsored it. Note only the 47 Member States elected to the council at the time can vote on a resolution, while any of them can sponsor it. The “Abstained” category includes countries that abstained from voting on the resolution. The “Passive” category includes countries that could not vote on the resolution and did not sponsor it. The same approach of categorizing countries was taken with regard to the July 2016 UN HRC resolution of the same name.
The data sets were aggregated with that of our Internet Shutdown Tracker which tracks internet and social media disruptions across the UN Member States. We then analyzed the data to compare countries’ stances on the two resolutions with their internet restriction practices. Internet restrictions data was updated on June 6th, 2023.For the complete research material behind this study, visit here.