June 22, 2024

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From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

Internet access shouldn’t be a bargaining chip

4 min read
The internet is particularly imperative when information is critical for survival. For example, what was previously a safe escape route may no longer be safe even a few hours later, and news printed in a broadsheet may no longer be reliable or relevant the following day.  

from the Electronic Freedom Foundation

We at EFF are horrified by the events transpiring in the Middle East: Hamas’ deadly attack on southern Israel Oct. 7 and Israel’s ongoing retributive military attack and siege on Gaza. While we are not experts in military strategy or international diplomacy, we do have expertise with how human rights and civil liberties should be protected on the internet—even in times of conflict and war. 

That is why we are deeply concerned that a key part of Israel’s response has been to target telecommunications infrastructure in Gaza, including effectively shutting down the internet.  

Here are a few reasons why:  

Shutting down telecommunications deprives civilians of a life-saving tool for sharing information when they need it the most. 

In wartime, being able to communicate directly with the people you trust is instrumental to personal safety and protection, and may ultimately mean the difference between life and death. But right now, the millions of people in Gaza, who are already facing a dire humanitarian crisis, are experiencing oppressive limitations on their access to the internet—stifling their ability to find out where their families are, obtain basic information about resources and any promised humanitarian aid, share safer border crossings, and other crucial information.  

The internet was built, in part, to make sure that communications like this are possible. And despite its use for spreading harmful content and misinformation, the internet is particularly imperative in moments of war and conflict when sharing and receiving real-time and up-to-date information is critical for survival. For example, what was previously a safe escape route may no longer be safe even a few hours later, and news printed in a broadsheet may no longer be reliable or relevant the following day.  

The internet enables this flow of information to remain active and alert to new realities. Shutting down access to internet services creates impossible obstacles for the millions of people trapped in Gaza. It is eroding access to the lifeline that millions of civilians need to stay alive.  

Shutting down telecommunications will not silence Hamas.  

We also understand the impulse to respond to Hamas’ shocking use of the internet to terrorize Israelis, including by taking over Facebook pages of people they have taken hostage to live stream and post horrific footage. We urge social media and other platforms to act quickly when those occur, which typically they can already do under their respective terms of use. But the Israeli government’s reaction of shutting down all internet communications in Gaza is a wrongheaded response and one that will impact exactly the wrong people.  

Hamas is sufficiently well-resourced to maneuver through any infrastructural barriers, including any internet shutdowns imposed by the Israeli government. Further, since Israel isn’t able to limit the voice of Hamas, the internet shutdown effectively allows Hamas to dominate the Palestinian narrative in the public vernacular—eliminating the voices of activists, journalists, and ordinary people documenting their realities and sharing facts in real-time.  

Shutting down telecommunications sets a dangerous precedent.  

Given the proliferation of the internet and its use in pivotal social and political moments, governments are very aware of their power to cut off that access. Shutdowns have become a blunt instrument that aid state violence and deprive free speech, and are routinely deployed by authoritarian governments that do not care about the rule of law or human rights.

For example, limiting access to the internet was a vital component of the Syrian government’s repressive strategy in 2013, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak shut down all internet access for five days in 2011 in an effort to impair Egyptians’ ability to coordinate and communicate. As we’ve said before, access to the Internet shouldn’t be a bargaining chip in geopolitical battles. Instead of protecting human rights of civilians, Israel has adopted a disproportionate tactic often used by the authoritarian governments of Iran, Russia, and Myanmar. 

Israel is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and has long claimed to be committed to upholding and protecting human rights. But shutting off access to telecommunications for millions of ordinary Palestinians is grossly inconsistent with that claim and instead sends the message that the Israeli government is actively working to ensure that ordinary Palestinians are placed at an even greater risk of harm than they already are.

It also sends the unmistakable message that the Israeli government is preventing people around the world learning the truth about its actions in Gaza, something that is affirmed by Israel’s other actions like approving new regulation to temporarily shut down news channels which ‘damage national security.’ 

We call on Israel to stop interfering with the telecommunications infrastructure in Gaza, and to ensure Palestinians from Gaza to the West Bank immediately have unrestricted access to the internet.    

Any and all original material on the EFF website may be freely distributed at will under the Creative Commons Attribution License.

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