Home Internet The International Community Must Protect Internet Freedom: A Lesson From Sudan – JURIST – Commentary

The International Community Must Protect Internet Freedom: A Lesson From Sudan – JURIST – Commentary

The author, a Sudanese researcher, argues that regional and international bodies must implement frameworks to safeguard telecommunication infrastructure and personnel during conflicts to mitigate the devastating impact on societies already grappling with violence and instability…

As of mid-January, the conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan has led to more than 13,000 deaths, according to experts from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. And experts warn this figure may not fully capture the extent of the tragedy. The ramifications of this violence extend far beyond the loss of human lives, permeating various sectors, including Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

Several challenges threaten the functionality and service delivery of Sudan’s ICT sector. One prominent issue is maintaining stable connectivity, which poses a significant challenge for ICT service providers in the country. Despite the political manipulation of internet shutdowns by Sudanese authorities, notably during the initial days of the conflict, the internet remained operational.

The Sudanese authorities shut down the internet numerous times. The longest shutdown was in 2019, which lasted for 37 days following the massacre of Khartoum. The second longest internet shutdown was in 2021, following the October 2021 military coup, lasting for 25 days. However, other shutdown cases were during national exams or tribal conflicts. Therefore, several internet disruptions were reported due to the conflict’s circumstances, causing isolation in several areas, especially in the Darfur region.

Past internet shutdowns in Sudan have been governed by relevant legal frameworks. But recent RSF efforts have not endeavored to find a legal justification; rather, these forces have imposed internet blackouts by seizing control of Internet Service Providers’ (ISPs) data centers in Khartoum. This has resulted in widespread disruptions, particularly in regions like the Red Sea and Nile River states, with major providers like MTN Sudan and Sudatel experiencing complete outages.

Explanations of the rationale behind the RSF’s actions have varied. Some reports have suggested it was in response to perceived indifference from companies regarding communication issues in Darfur, while others framed it as an attempt to counteract alleged internet shutdowns by the SAF in the region. Regardless, the Sudanese government classified the RSF as a terrorist organization, further complicating the situation.

In response to the disruption, major ISPs issued apologies via social media, citing circumstances beyond their control and assuring customers of efforts to restore services promptly. However, the impact of these shutdowns on Sudanese society is profound. Beyond impeding daily activities, such as banking and accessing governmental services, they also hamper critical communications for emergency assistance, exacerbating the challenges faced by conflict-affected communities. And Sudanese embassies and consulates have even been forced to curtail passport operations due to the shutdowns.

Moreover, the reliance on e-banking services exposes vulnerabilities, with reports of looting by RSF forces further destabilizing financial systems.

Economist Ahmed Ben Omer highlighted the compounding effects of war and economic mismanagement, underscoring the risks of reverting to a pre-banking era, telling me in an interview:

War and the banking centralized system cripple Sudan’s banks, causing cash chaos. Cash queues in banks have returned, and some banks are near collapse as internet outages hit money transfers, preventing people from getting their basic needs met. The country risks a return to the pre-banking era as the Central Bank loses control and mismanages money amid an unstable war economy.

The ramifications extend beyond immediate disruptions, posing long-term threats to foreign investment and economic stability. The telecommunication sector, a significant contributor to Sudan’s economy, faces substantial losses with each hour of shutdown, as estimated by tools like Netblocks’ Cost of Shutdown Tool.

Sudan has ratified key international human rights instruments including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), which guarantee the right to receive, impart, and disseminate information. The constitutional charter of Sudan for the year 2019 guarantees internet access. But both parties currently feuding for control of the country have grim histories of stifling internet freedom. The recurring pattern of internet shutdowns during conflicts warrants attention from regional and international bodies, with calls for such disruptions to be recognized as humanitarian offenses. Implementing frameworks to safeguard telecommunication infrastructure and personnel during conflicts is imperative to mitigate the devastating impact on societies already grappling with violence and instability.

Khattab Hamad is a Sudanese researcher whose work focuses on digital rights and internet governance.

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST’s editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.



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