To Protect against Digital Authoritarianism, Telecom Companies Must Respect Human Rights

Thousands of protesters raise their phones during a protest against presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, on August 30th 2020. © Sidney Léa Le Bour/Hans Lucas/Redux

As Belarusians went to the polls in 2020 to vote in the country’s presidential elections, many checked their mobile phones and computers to find that they could no longer connect to the internet—including social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and the popular Russian social platform Vkontakte. With several widely-read independent media outlets shut down, and the Twitter accounts of many journalists, human rights defenders, NGOs, and bloggers throttled, Belarusians were unable to get up-to-date information on what was happening on the streets.

President Alexander Lukashenko officially received over 81 percent of the vote and was reelected to his sixth term.

In the following days, as tens of thousands protested election results marred by procedural irregularities, internet disruptions continued. From Election Day on August 9 until August 14, 2020, internet shutdowns became the ruling party’s main tool to clamp down on the opposition, in addition to strongarm tactics and ruthless violence against civilians. Without access to instant messaging apps and mobile internet, journalists, human right defenders, and protestors were left in an information vacuum, giving police free reign to violently arrest, beat, and torture pro-democracy supporters without a digital evidence trail. In the aftermath of the demonstrations, thousands were arrested, and protestors were held in "torture chambers” in police custody, in which some died. Every Sunday for the rest of the year, when weekly anti-Lukashenko protests took place, Belarusians continued to experience internet blackouts.

The way Lukashenko used these internet blackouts to limit digital freedom, stifle dissent, and promote pro-regime messages is in line with the well-rehearsed playbook of authoritarian regimes: one that includes online surveillance, censorship, social manipulation, harassment, cyber-attacks, internet shutdowns, and targeted persecution against online users. With recent revelations on the extent governments have used Pegasus spyware, for example, the ways in which companies themselves support digital authoritarianism have been of major international concern.

But when it comes to internet disruptions, the proximity between corporations and authoritarian governments has yet to garner widespread global attention. Internet blackouts add to an environment of instability that autocrats exploit to spread misinformation and impede the flow of information both within the country and across its borders. As in Belarus, this is often accompanied by more brutal police repression, giving rise to gross human rights abuses. These kinds of clampdowns on internet freedom are only growing in number globally: in 2020, over 155 internet shutdowns were documented in 29 countries, taking place most frequently during periods of elections and protests.

That’s why, as corporations hold increasing power by controlling the technological arms of governments, they must also take more responsibility for their actions and use their leverage—whether this be in market share or political influence—to contest practices that violate human rights. One of the major telecommunications companies involved in Belarus’ 2020 internet shutdowns was phone operator A1 Telekom Austria, which, through its subsidiary, A1 Belarus, has roughly 42 percent of Belarus’ mobile market. While fixed wireless internet is controlled by Belarusian state agencies, mobile internet outages required A1 Belarus, which owns and controls domestic 2G and 3G networks, to hit a kill switch.

While the A1 Group, parent company to A1 Telekom Austria, acknowledged its involvement, it shirked responsibility, stating merely that “A1 Belarus complied with the requirements of the governmental authorized bodies”. This is far from an adequate response from Telekom Austria for its actions that directly aided a brutal government crackdown.

A new complaint by the Open Society Justice Initiative has now been filed before the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) against Telekom Austria—the first time that a formal complaint has been filed against a European telecommunications company for its involvement in internet shutdowns in Belarus. The complaint seeks to address the question of a company’s responsibility when ordered by a client government to suppress internet freedom under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, one of the few internationally-agreed standards that outline the responsibilities of businesses in relation to the human rights impacts of their operations. Because human rights due diligence legislation is largely non-existent in most European countries, the OECD standards on business and human rights serve as one of the few entry points for pushing for corporate accountability.

Ultimately, this complaint aims to support civil society efforts to put the onus on tech and telecommunications companies to identify whether, and how, their technologies could be used to restrict internet freedom, and to ensure that they take adequate measures to prevent contributing to human rights violations through their operations and business relationships. In practice, corporations must invest time and resources in implementing strong human rights due diligence policies when entering commercial agreements, especially with governments that have poor human rights track records. They should also conduct human rights impact assessments to ensure that their business activities do not have an adverse impact on human rights—as well as remediate situations in which they contributed directly or indirectly to human rights violations.

Companies that help to prop up the authoritarian tendencies of anti-democratic governments should no longer be able to hide behind the excuse that they were simply following orders. It is time they were held accountable when contributing to actions that have repercussions on human rights, both online and offline. The OECD should use this opportunity to enforce human rights standards against companies that so far have violated them with impunity.

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