Questioning Ethiopia’s Internet shutdown measures through the lens of the Right to Health
|Date:||28 June 2019|
By Yohannes Eneyew Ayalew*
In Ethiopia, from 11 to 18 June 2019, the internet was completely closed down; this means the country was without internet for eight consecutive days. This measure was taken due to the fear of a potential leak of the national exam over the internet. To note, there is no official confirmation as to what necessitates a shut down of internet services. Given the internet of things (IOT), the health sector was actually one of the affected areas during the latest blackout measures in Ethiopia.
This blog post questions this latest Ethiopian shutdown measure through the lens of the right to health and aims to flag the impact of internet shutdown on health rights. In particular, it will unpack how internet shutdown affected the right to health in Ethiopia such as failure to access health related information online and other health rights.
What is Internet Shutdown?
The concept of internet shutdown could be referred to from various contexts, one such reference could link it to the deliberate disruption of the internet. For example, while Ben Wagner has explained the concept as intentional disconnections of digital communications by government authorities. Other authorities define the term internet shutdown as “an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.”
The raison d’être for internet shutdowns vary by country and by incident. In the Ethiopian context, when choosing to shut off internet access, the government pointed to the need to stop students from cheating on school exams, to controlling the strike of defense forces, to quell rising protests, and to contain civil disobedience.
The Link Between the Right to Health and Internet Shutdown
States undertook to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to health both offline and online. This is since the UN Human Right Council adopted its landmark Resolution in 2016 affirming that the people’s rights offline must also be observed online.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in its General Comment 14 on the right to health highlighted that the right to health is not only to timely and appropriate health care, but also to the underlying determinants of health, such as access to health-related information (para 11). The Committee emphasized that information accessibility would fall under the ambit of accessibility in the famous ‘AAAQ’ test. In particular, information accessibility could refer to the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas concerning health issues (para 12). This further confirms that individuals can exercise these rights both online and offline as per the above Resolution.
In the digital world, people are becoming highly dependent on the internet for social services, including accessing health services. Thus, when State or non-State actors (Internet Service Providers) block or otherwise disrupt the internet, it would unequivocally affect the right to health as any form of internet shutdown results in failure to access health related information.
The right to health is recognized under article 41(4) of the Ethiopian Constitution, although it lacks clarity in comparison to the one provided under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
Internet Shutdown Upsetting Health Rights in Ethiopia
Much has been said about the impact of internet shutdown on freedom of expression, access to information and loss of national economy. However, there is no further study nor academic literature covering the impact of shutdowns on the right to health in Ethiopia. Even worse, there is no legal framework governing internet shutdown in Ethiopia.
I would argue that the internet shutdown measure exceedingly affected the right to health in Ethiopia. First, during the blackout week, individuals were deprived of access to health related information including sexual and reproductive health rights online. Second, patients’ have been forced to reschedule their medical appointments both in the domestic and overseas health institutions as a result of online communications blockage. Third, health sector technology companies were affected by the disruption of the internet; this is partly because they lost their income and created a huge inconvenience on their clients. NetBlocks has estimated that Ethiopia lost 4.5 million USD per day as a result of the internet shutdown. This signals that health sector technology companies’ income also plummeted significantly as a direct result from the measure.
Whenever internet shutdown is ordered, it will profoundly affect individuals’ health. For instance, the patients’ may be deprived access to health related information online. To overcome the above challenges, the writer recommends the following. First, the Ethiopian government should pay attention to the UN Human Rights Council Resolution of 2016 urging states to observe rights both online and offline. Second, given absence of a legal framework governing internet shutdowns in Ethiopia, the government should adhere to international obligations as to the right to health. Third, civil society organizations (CSOs) working on Universal Periodic Review (UPR) submissions on internet shutdown should study and include the health impacts of such measures. Fourthly, The UN Special rapporteur on the right to health should keep an eye on how the right to health would be affected during internet shutdown measures in future reports. Furthermore, to understand the status quo, and contexts, a detailed empirical research has to be made. Finally, the Ethiopian lawyers working on the right to health and internet freedom should test courts through strategic litigation and battle arbitrary internet shutdown.
***** *************** *****
*Yohannes Eneyew Ayalew is a recent graduate of LL.M International Human Rights Law at the University of Groningen. He is a lecturer in law at the School of Law Samara University, Ethiopia. P.o.Box 132. He would like to thank Professor Brigit Toebes for her encouragement. His research and teaching focuses on digital rights, freedom of expression on the internet, internet shutdown, media clampdown, the right to health, and international human rights law. Email: eneyewyohannes gmail.com
 Ben Wagner, ‘Understanding Internet Shutdowns: A Case Study from Pakistan’ (2018) 12 Int’l J Communication 3918.
 Katie Dancey-Downs, ‘AccessNow, We Need to Talk about Internet Shutdowns’ (Lush) <https://uk.lush.com/article/we-need-talkabout-internet-shutdowns> accessed 19 June 2019.
 Yohannes Eneyew Ayalew, ‘The Internet shutdown muzzle(s) freedom of expression in Ethiopia: competing narratives’ (2019) 28(2) Information & Communications Technology Law 209.
 UN Human Rights Council, ‘The Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet’ (Resolution) (adopted 18 July 2016) A/HRC/RES/32/13, para 1.