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Human Rights Think Tank Calls for Overhaul of Mobile Network Shutdowns and Service Disruptions

21 September 2015

The Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), a global think-tank, has published a new report on the practice of mobile network shutdowns in Pakistan and the wider implications of such practices by governments around the world. The report, entitled Security v Access: The Impact of Mobile Network Shutdowns, highlights the wider socio-economic impacts of network shutdowns and argues that in some cases such disruptions can actually threaten the very right these practices seek to preserve, the right to life.

Based on extensive analysis of a specific mobile network shutdown in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad and the city of Rawalpindi during March 2015, the report proposes a total of 14 recommendations targeted at the Government of Pakistan and telecommunication providers operating within the country, which can also be applied globally.

Commenting on the launch of the report, John Morrison, IHRB’s Executive Director, said:

“While we no longer see country-wide network shutdowns on the scale of Egypt during the Arab Spring, governments globally are still reaching for the communications ‘off switch’ during times of civil unrest or for national security reasons. This may target a specific geographical area of mobile coverage, internet access, or a specific service such as Facebook or WhatsApp, and potentially impact millions of people.”

“Most countries' national laws allow governments to take control of communications networks during a national emergency, but exactly how and when they can use this power is often not clearly spelled out.

“Shutting down communication networks can be a blunt instrument that deprives law enforcement agencies the opportunity to use communications for the purpose of fighting terrorism and appealing for calm – it can actually put lives at risk.

“There is no denying that Pakistan has genuine security concerns and the Government has an obligation to take all reasonable steps to protect civilian lives. However, IHRB’s report highlights the view of other experts who are concerned that network shutdowns are becoming the norm to curb terrorism, which is not a long term solution for any country, when other methods should be explored.”

IHRB’s report highlights that while telecommunications providers and the Government of Pakistan are making concerted efforts to minimise the impacts of network disruptions, there is still considerable work to be done in order to create a clear decision-making process and legal framework that is both transparent and accountable. In particular, the report stresses the importance of ensuring emergency services (ambulance, police and fire) can continue to operate, and highlights the wider impact felt by companies, schools, universities and colleges and online commercial and public services, which are disrupted during mobile network shutdowns.

In terms of the financial implications, the report highlights a series of mobile network shutdowns in Pakistan during November 2012, which cost over 1 billion Pakistani rupees ($98m) in lost taxes alone [1]. The true cost however would have been much greater after factoring businesses lost income and the resulting compensation claims.

Morrison concluded by saying:

 “IHRB’s report outlines a clear roadmap for change which advocates the creation and implementation of appropriate checks and balances around the mobile network shutdowns, which are both transparent and rooted in the rule of law.”
“While these recommendations are based on a specific case study from Pakistan, they have important lessons for all countries and telecommunications providers.”

Telenor Pakistan, a subsidiary of Telenor Group, one of the world’s largest mobile operators, is the case study in IHRB’s report.

The new report is part of IHRB’s Digital Dangers project, developed in collaboration with the School of Law at the University of Washington. One of the aims of the Digital Dangers project is to encourage companies to be open and transparent about the complex dilemmas they face in respecting freedom of expression and privacy by sharing their experiences to spark debate with governments and civil society and bring about positive change.


Contact: Lucy Purdon, IHRB ICT Project Manager, 07966798831/[email protected]



[1] Shutdowns have caused losses of tax revenue to the Government of Pakistan. It was reported that shutdowns during the Eid (a major national holiday) in 2012 caused an estimated loss of 507 million Pakistani rupees (US$ 49 million) in taxes from the mobile operators to the exchequer. Shutdowns in November 2012 during Ashura, a religious day in the Islamic calendar, are estimated to have caused 500 million Pakistani rupees (US$ 49.02 million) of losses to the Government in tax revenue from cellular subscribers.

About the report - Security v Access: The Impact of Mobile Network Shutdowns:
The reports recommendations for the Government of Pakistan:
  1. Ensure continued access to emergency services
  2. Review the policy of network disconnection
  3. Review laws applicable to network disconnection
  4. Establish dialogue with companies
  5. Engage with citizens
  6. Be transparent
  7. Ensure better oversight
  8. Provide compensation to operators
The report’s recommendations for telecommunications operators:
  1. Open dialogue with Governments
  2. Widen support within the industry through collective action
  3. Conduct stakeholder engagement
  4. Create a consumer grievance mechanism
  5. Ensure transparency

In order to develop the research to inform the report, IHRB embedded a local researcher into the headquarters of a large telecommunications operator – Telenor Pakistan – in Islamabad, to conduct research into the context of network disconnections and document how the company receives and acts on requests from the Government to initiate network shutdowns. 
IHRB thanks Telenor Pakistan for its participation in the research.

About the Institute for Human Rights and Business
  • IHRB is a not for profit global centre of excellence and expertise on the relationship between business and internationally proclaimed human rights standards.
  • Much of IHRB’s focus is based on key “global flows” critical to sustainable social and economic development:  flows of labor, information, money and commodities.
  • IHRB has a proven track record of working directly with business leaders, government officials, civil society, and trade unions to provide guidance on implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and evaluating the effectiveness of current policies, operational practices, and multi-stakeholder initiatives relevant to human rights.
  • IHRB has presence in Geneva, Brussels, London and Washington, DC in addition to three responsible business centres in Colombia, Kenya, and Myanmar, and is part of a consortium that works on business and human rights in China.
  • Over 20 staff members carry out IHRB’s regional and thematic work around the world.
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