Restrictions on internet services must be lifted during COVID-19 pandemic

LONDON - Governments that restrict access to information and block digital communications platforms, such as Skype and WhatsApp, must lift their bans to help fight the coronavirus pandemic and keep the global economy running, says ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies.

The London-based think-tank stresses that the near-global travel ban, closure of schools, increased remote working and unprecedented scale and pace of the pandemic requires unfettered communication to control anxiety and keep economies running. Free video and voice calls are often the only way foreign workers can stay connected to their families and employers. Yet bans on free calling and messaging platforms continue to be widespread, particularly in the Gulf.

Blocking communication platforms prevents people from obtaining the information they need whilst trying to battle the virus. This is not the time for governments to block and restrict citizens

- Khalil Agha, ImpACT's Digital Adviser

Most Gulf countries restrict all applications that use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which allows free calls. With the outbreak of the coronavirus, the ban will aggravate panic and uncertainty amongst low-income labourers, international students and foreign workers who rely on the technology to communicate with their families back home and for information. 

Khalil Agha, ImpACT’s digital adviser, commented: “The World Health Organization (WHO) has repeatedly made clear that good communication is vital to fighting COVID-19.

Good communications help to manage our expectations and fears, making it more likely we’ll follow official instructions during a pandemic. Done poorly, the opposite is true, undermining trust and confidence in measures such as self-isolation and social distancing leading to higher infection rates, costing lives and damaging the economy. Yet despite this clear and unequivocal guidance, a raft of countries still restrict access to information, banning VoIPs and independent advice.

“This is why ImpACT International calls on governments that ban free internet call applications, such as Skype, WhatsApp, Messenger and FaceTime, to immediately lift the restrictions to facilitate migrant workers’ family connections.”

The call to lift restrictions on VoIPs and other internet services received a major boost today, as three senior parliamentarians, Sammy Wilson MP, Lord Hylton and Baroness Harris of Richmond, have joined the campaign urging governments in the Gulf and China to lift their bans on free internet call and video services.

Mr. Agha continued: “A case in point is the United Arab Emirates, where low paid labourers and other foreign workers, many of whom are from the UK, who are caught using services such as WhatsApp and Skype face a fine of up to $130,000 dollars, or jail time. Similar restrictions are seen in Iran, where layers of cyber censorship block call such apps. Iranians must use an alternative messaging app called Telegram, which is highly regulated and limits their access to information from outside their country.  

Blocking communication platforms prevents people from obtaining the information they need whilst trying to battle the virus. This is not the time for governments to block and restrict citizens; it is a time when people around the world must stay connected and support each other,”

“Although the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority in the UAE said on Monday that some apps like Google Hangouts Meet and Slack are now accessible, it still bans other apps like WhatsApp and Fecebook Messenger, which are more common among migrant workers.” he added.

He concluded: “One vital element of the campaign to fight COVID-19 is an open and secure internet that allows people to share their experiences. ImpACT International concludes that governments that insist on continuing to restrict citizens’ use of free internet calls and social media platforms put their public health systems and citizens at major risk, as well as violate internationally protected human rights.”

Brief Report: Border lockdowns and communication blocks: In the wake of COVID-19, workers wonder how to contact home

 

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