IGF 2023 Town Hall #39 Elections and the Internet: free, fair and open?

Tuesday, 10th October, 2023 (00:45 UTC) - Tuesday, 10th October, 2023 (01:45 UTC)
WS 10 – Room I

Internet Shutdowns

Panel - 60 Min


Facilitated by the Freedom Online Coalition Taskforce on Internet Shutdowns, our objective for this Town Hall session is to explore how the multi-stakeholder community (countries, civil society and the private sector) can work together to anticipate, prepare for and where possible prevent Internet shutdowns before they occur, in particular ahead of elections, building on progress to date. This Town Hall session will feature a panel discussion and Q&A, bringing together experts to look at causes, trends and impacts of Internet shutdowns, including on human rights, information integrity and democratic participation (particularly in the context of wider attempts to control the information space around elections). Through the session we will seek to identify practical steps that can be taken, drawing lessons from elections during 2023 and looking towards ‘high risk’ elections in 2024. During 2023, the UK is chairing the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) Taskforce on Internet Shutdowns (TFIS) alongside FOC Advisory Network (AN) members Access Now and the Global Network Initiative. TFIS serves as a multi-national and multi-stakeholder coordination and response mechanism on Internet shutdowns. Through TFIS, we are working to improve coordination among like-minded countries, civil society, and the private sector to anticipate and respond to Internet shutdowns. As the biggest multilateral, multi-stakeholder forum dedicated to internet governance, the UN IGF is the ideal platform to bring partners together to drive this forward. This event will support and deliver on our four key lines of effort: knowledge sharing; response – preventative and reactive (especially the former); shifting global norms – elevating Internet shutdowns up the international policy agenda (in line with the aspiration Japan set out to when hosting a session on Internet shutdowns at the UN UGF 2022); and improving data collection (e.g. trends around Internet shutdowns around elections).

The sessions will follow a Town Hall format, with an aimed balanced representation of both online and onsite speakers. The event will have an onsite moderator, chairing the discussion, and an online moderator to manage online participation, for example questions and comments in the online chat. The onsite and online moderators will be working closely together during the event to ensure a fluid and smooth conversation and interactions between participants onsite and online, supported by Google Meet/Zoom and onsite AV equipment. The event will begin with an introduction and welcome from the moderator, followed by 3-5 minutes of speaking time for each Town Hall speaker, which will take up the first part of the event. The second half of the session will be for an open discussion with attendees. During this time, the onsite moderator will chair the conversation and contributions from both online and onsite participants, ensuring equal opportunity of speech. The online moderator will source questions from the online audience to the onsite moderator, who will intertwine the online queries and comments with questions from the onsite audience. To maximise engagement, we will consider using social media and/or interactive polling (1-3 poll questions) on relevant issues throughout the event to 'read the temperature in the room'. The poll will use Slide/Mentimeter, which will allow onsite attendees to quickly access it using their mobile devices. The poll questions will also be pasted on the chat box by the online moderator, so people can respond to the poll questions in the chat box if they are not able to use Slido/Mentimeter. The online moderator will be responsible for collating insights from social media, the polling tool and responses in the chat box, to feed these to the on site moderator to announce and provide comments in designated moments throughout the event.


UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
Kanbar Hossein-Bor: Deputy Director Democratic Governance & Media Freedom, UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office Nicola Burgess: UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office Amelia Timewell: UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office Laura O’Brien: Access Now Idan Ben Yakir: Global Network Initiative


Confirmed in person speakers/participants: - Felicia Anthonio, Campaigner for the #KeepItOn campaign at Access Now - Sarah Moulton, Deputy Director, Democracy and Technology, at the National Democratic Institute (leading a project about shutdowns and elections). - Nicole Stremlau, Head of the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy at the University of Oxford and Research Professor in Humanities at the University of Johannesburg, with specific insight on shutdowns/Africa. In addition, we plan to invite: - An elections integrity expert. - Geographical-focused representative from a country/region with elections in late 2023/early 2024 subject to developments between now and October.

Onsite Moderator

Kanbar Hossein-Bor, Deputy Director Democratic Governance & Media Freedom, UK Foreign Commonwealth & Development Office

Online Moderator

Amelia Timewell / Idan Ben Yakir


Nicola Burgess / Laura O’Brien


10. Reduced Inequalities
16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Targets: Internet shutdowns imposed by governments impact all people, especially vulnerable and marginalised groups, including women. Internet shutdowns ramp up censorship, restrict free expression, and limit the dissemination and free flow of information, contributing to social and political disorder, and violence and negatively affecting public safety. Other impacts include lowering labour and capital productivity, as access to email servers and online platforms is vital for many thriving economies; disrupting financial and banking services and preventing payments for salaries, utilities, health, and education; risking foreign direct investment, as a climate of uncertainty can discourage foreign investors; and limiting the ability of journalists and human rights defenders to report on human rights violations or abuses.

Key Takeaways (* deadline 2 hours after session)

Importance of multi stakeholder approach but recognition of the lack of government/private sector engagement, in Africa region in particular, which leads to isolation and an inability to effectively moderate content. This can lead to the common use of Internet shutdowns as a means of addressing content issues such as hate speech, which is not the solution.

Whilst some governments may lack the tools, knowledge, digital literacy and access to the wider multi-stakeholder community to address issues of concern through effective content moderation, shutting down the internet does not address the root causes and only creates more problems, including undermining rights and the prosperity of a society. Internet shutdowns are also widely used as a deliberate tool for controlling the free flow of information

Call to Action (* deadline 2 hours after session)

Call on governments to cease use of the blunt tool of internet shutdowns which impedes the free flow of information during electoral periods, and threatens human rights and the democratic process as a whole.

Reinforce the importance of planning ahead through narrative and risk forcasting to pre-empt and mitigate shutdowns, with a view to developing knowledge and literacy around other means for addressing the issues Governments state they are addressing by shutting down the internet (e.g. hate speech). Addressing one problem by creating another is not the answer and the multi stakeholder community must continue to challenge the narrative.

Session Report (* deadline 26 October) - click on the ? symbol for instructions

This session was facilitated by the FOC Task Force on Internet Shutdowns (TFIS), co-Chaired by the U.K. and Freedom Online Coalition-Advisory Network members Access Now and the Global Network Initiative. The session examined causes, trends and impacts of Internet shutdowns and disruptions, and explored how the multistakeholder community can work together to anticipate, prepare for, and where possible prevent Internet shutdowns before they occur, with a focus on identifying practical steps that can be taken ahead of ‘high risk’ elections in 2024.

Kanbar Hossein-Bor, Deputy Director of Democratic Governance & Media Freedom at the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, provided opening remarks, noting that Internet shutdowns pose a significant threat to the free flow of information and are a fundamental impediment to the ability to exercise human rights, underscoring the importance of a multistakeholder approach to addressing these challenges. Mr. Hossein-Bor highlighted the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) Joint Statement on Internet Shutdowns and Elections, launched during the session, which calls on States to refrain from shutting down the Internet and digital communications platforms amid electoral periods, as aligned with States’ international human rights obligations and commitments.

Speakers underlined the critical role access to the Internet and digital media platforms play in promoting free, transparent, and fair electoral processes. Panellists spoke on the negative reality of Internet shutdowns and their impact, noting its destructive consequences on economic prosperity and access to health care, as well as obscuring human rights violations. Panellists highlighted how Internet disruptions and preventing access to platforms during election periods are often justified by governments as a means to ensure national security and to mitigate disinformation, even though shutdowns and disruptions have proven to further exacerbate security risks, especially among already vulnerable groups. Speakers also highlighted big tech companies’ lack of engagement and product oversight in local contexts (e.g. hate speech moderation in local languages). Additionally, when examining government use of Internet shutdowns, panellists flagged governments’ lack of knowledge and experience regarding alternative tools to address security concerns amid elections in contexts of violence. In these contexts, full and partial shutdowns were used as a form of resistance and expression of sovereignty by governments in response to companies and systems they felt powerless to and did not know how to engage with. In addition to underlining the need for a multistakeholder approach and calling on telecommunications and digital media companies to ensure people have access to a secure, open, free, and inclusive Internet throughout electoral processes, panellists also recognised the role of disinformation as a risk cited by governments to justify Internet shutdowns and disruptions during elections. In order to address this challenge, speakers noted the following recommendations:

● Narrative forecasting: Anticipating the types of narratives that may be deployed at different points in the electoral process, and preparing a response;

● Overcoming selection bias: Finding ways to bring fact-based information into the right spaces;

● Preemptive responses to disinformation: Drafting preemptive responses to disinformation in order to reduce response time and minimise the spread of disinformation.

● Collaboration between civil society and Big Tech: Encouraging collaboration between local civil society organisations and big tech companies to address online content moderation in local contexts.

During the Q&A session, audience members enquired about government and civil society strategies to address and prevent Internet shutdowns, emphasising additional considerations to take into account when seeking to promote fair and open elections.

The U.K. closed the session by reiterating the importance of 2024 as a key election year, and also highlighted the publication of the Oxford Statement on the Universal Access to Information and Digital connectivity, developed following the Global Conference for the International Day for Universal Access to Information 2023.