Mapping the Impact of Digital Technology from Network Disruptions to Disinformation

By Rocio Campos |

Signed by African journalists during a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seminar in May 1991, the Declaration of Windhoek is a statement of free press principles that led to the proclamation of World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) on 3 May by the UN General Assembly in 1993.  This year, the Global Network Initiative(GNI) is proud to join UNESCO, the African Union, and the Government of Ethiopia for the 26th celebration of WPFD in Addis Ababa under the theme, “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation.

On 3 May, GNI Policy Director Jason Pielemeier and representatives from GNI members the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Facebook, and the International Media Support (IMS), together with the Ethiopian journalist Abel Wabella will participate in the session: “Understanding Electoral Information Flows: Mapping the Impact of Digital Technology from Network Disruptions to Disinformation.” This workshop will build on an earlier colloquium organized by GNI and UNESCO titled Improving the Communication and Information Ecosystem to Protect the Integrity of Elections.

In 2019, 62 countries will elect leaders who will govern 3.28 billion people worldwide. Hence, it is paramount to understand the impacts of digital technology on information flows during elections and bring to the table the perspectives of different stakeholders.

Are Transparency and Access to Information Enough to Secure Free Elections?

According to UNESCO “Internet and digital technologies allow candidates a direct means by which to communicate with the voting public. However, some digital technologies used to influence people’s choices escape scrutiny — such as whether, for example, advertising complies with the rules of electoral authorities. Without effective access to information and transparency, the integrity and legitimacy of elections can be compromised. We need technology companies and governments that are more transparent, and that respect the rules and regulations of elections, in order to guarantee free and fair elections.”

GNI information and communications technology (ICT) company members face increasing orders from governments to disrupt networks and restrict access to Internet services. Such orders often take place during protests or elections with significant consequences for users and journalists around the world. GNI members (ICT companies, human rights and press freedom organizations, academics, and investors) work to counteract these trends and protect freedom of expression and privacy rights in a variety of ways. For instance, on the issue of network interference, Netblocks’ Internet observatory has collected evidence of blocking of a political party website in Pakistan in the 2018 election and CIPESA released a report that documents the relation between network disruptions and elections in Africa. Others like the #KeepItOn coalition have developed infographics guiding users on how to install Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) anticipating Internet disruptions, as seen in the Nigerian election last February.

Elections have also become the focus of disinformation campaigns, making online platforms vulnerable targets for the dissemination of divisive and false narratives. Multistakeholder engagement can play a key role to confront this evolving assault on the Internet affecting democratic processes. In July 2017, Google and Jigsaw unveiled Protect Your Election with free tools to help voters get accurate information in the Kenyan election.[1] In the U.S., Pen America recently released a report, which analyzes efforts to counter fraudulent news in the 2018 midterm election, stressing the importance of social media platforms, candidates and political parties stepping up efforts to keep fraudulent news from polluting the 2020 election cycle. Research centers like the Center for Data Innovation are discussing the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to fight disinformation in European elections, while organizations like Freedom House have developed tools that estimate Internet censorship, i.e., Internet Freedom Election Monitor.

GNI‘s session will take advantage of the expertise of panelists and participants to map the different ways in which digital technology impacts election-relevant information flows, as well as the inter-relationships between these impacts. The goal is to help policymakers, companies, elections administrators, elections observers, media, and other stakeholders identify and mitigate risks, improve planning and coordination, and enhance transparency around their efforts to support elections. Active multistakeholder engagement can play a key role to strengthen transparency and access to information and prevent them from being compromised during elections.

Don’t miss GNI’s panel on 3 May at 14:00–15:30 EAT and follow IMS’ @andreasr | Addis Zeybe’s @Abelpoly | CIPESA’s @ChewingStones | CPJ’s @muthokimumo ‏| Facebook’s @emigandhi | GNI’s @pielemeier #WorldPressFreedomDay

Relevant resources:

[1] See: Freeman, Bennett, Shared Space Under Pressure Business Support for Civil Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders, p.74
This article was originally posted here

“What Next for Advocacy Against Network Disruptions?

By David Sullivan |

Few events bring together the multitude of actors with a stake in tough technology and human rights challenges quite like the Internet Governance Forum, or IGF. The 2018 edition, held in Paris and hosted by UNESCO, was no exception, with nearly 2,000 delegates from 143 countries. It was a particularly suitable setting for the Global Network Initiative, or GNI, to
gather a panel of experts to reflect on the alarming trend of government-ordered network disruptions.

The sharp increase in the number of major government-ordered disruptions from 2015 to 2017. Figure from Jan Rydzak’s report for GNI: “Disconnected: A Human Rights-Based Approach to Network Disruptions.”

Collaborating with the Open Internet for Democracy Initiative, GNI brought members and experts from civil society, the private sector, and international organizations together to consider challenges and opportunities for the movement fighting network disruptions. Session moderator Daniel O’Maley from the Center for International Media Assistance opened the conversation by noting that disruptions are increasing worldwide, affecting both democracies as well as authoritarian countries. With this prompt, the speakers highlighted successful advocacy initiatives and shared their insights into this concerning trend.

Usama Khilji from Pakistani civil society organization Bolo Bhi described how network disruptions have become normalized in many societies, with an increasing expectation that connectivity will not be available around events like public holidays or political protests. He said there is little evidence that the use of network disruptions and shutdowns during sensitive moments is effective at providing security for citizens and stressed the importance of making this point with policymakers.

Providing a company perspective, GNI Board member Patrik Hiselius from Sweden’s Telia Company described tools that help companies contend with “unusual requests” such as disruption orders. Telia has a form they use to assess risks and escalate such requests, ensuring senior company officials are informed and reducing security risks for staff on the ground. He also highlighted GNI’s one-page guide on the negative consequences of shutdowns, a document that arose out of a brainstorming session at the 2016 IGF and which has now been translated into 12 languages.

Ashnah Kalemera from the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa, or CIPESA, discussed their work documenting the economic impact of disruptions on the African continent, which was used successfully in advocacy to prevent shutdowns in Ghana and Kenya and to strengthen partnerships with the private sector and technologists.

Representing our hosts at UNESCO, Xianhong Hu described network disruptions as a threat to Internet universality and suggested the indicators they have been developing may be a useful tool for documenting and discouraging such actions.

Lastly, participating remotely from Cameroon and persevering through technical difficulties, entrepreneur and activist Kathleen Ndongmo said that governments who shut down the Internet are not only blocking democracy but also costing their societies millions of dollars in lost business. She urged the audience to collaborate at the regional level to push for the passage of legislation that protects rights and innovation, such as Nigeria’s Digital Rights and Freedom Bill.

The audience contributed to the discussion with probing questions and comments, from how strategic litigation may contribute to the fight against disruptions to a reminder of the significant privacy risks from surveillance in many settings when networks remain on.

The discussion left me reflecting on more than two years of work by GNI to build consensus among our members and with policymakers on this issue. Early on, we faced challenges bridging very different perspectives and postures among human rights NGOs and telecommunications and Internet companies. Through discussion and deliberation, we reached consensus on a common position in 2016. Since then, we have developed tools and conducted research, convened experts and affected communities, and brought the digital rights and technology policy communities into alignment as powerful voices. But network disruptions are blunt instruments that affect a far wider population than just the technology industry. We need to marshal a much broader movement, one including the media, labor unions, and a wider set of sectors, to demonstrate the consequences of government-ordered shutdowns and educate policymakers about alternatives.

In his rousing opening address to the IGF, UN Secretary-General António Gutteres said “we must be more than multistakeholder, we must also be multidisciplinary,” and he went on to “urge your digital discussions to move beyond the so-called ‘usual suspects’.” Following his lead, we need a concerted effort to forge greater and new alliances, between both online and offline communities, if we are to keep free and open networks connected around the globe.

This article was first published on November 29, 2018 on GNI Website.

CIPESA Joins The Global Network Initiative

Announcement | The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) is the newest member of the civil society constituency of the Global Network Initiative.
CIPESA works to inform policymakers and other stakeholders across the African continent about the connection between rights-based ICT policies and good governance and improved livelihoods. GNI will benefit from CIPESA’s policy and legal expertise to advance Internet freedom and privacy in Africa, and from its convening power as coordinator of the regional ICT4Democracy in East Africa Network and hosts of the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica).
Through engagement with GNI companies and experts, CIPESA hopes GNI membership will allow them to widen their network, and enhance their multi-stakeholder approach at the global level. CIPESA’s Executive Director Dr. Wairagala Wakabi said: “Our membership will enable us to gain more skills and knowledge from a multiplicity of important actors, to continue playing the role of multipliers and advocates who are able to reach wide audiences and to influence the perceptions and actions of relevant African actors on digital rights.”
Some highlights of CIPESA’s work include an intensive regional training on ICT policy research for different stakeholders, annual reporting on the trends affecting Internet  freedom across Africa, and analyses or commentary on corporate transparency and laws and policies on the ground in a number of countries, including BurundiRwandaSouth Africa, and Tanzania. You can learn more about their work, which has received wide coverage. 
CIPESA’s membership marks a period of notable expansion for GNI’s civil society constituency in the Global South. For more information about CIPESA, visit: To learn more about GNI’s multi-stakeholder membership see here.