The Dual Role of the Internet in Conflict Zones: Bridging the Divide between Isolation and Humanitarian Aid

The first weeks of 2024 were no better than their predecessors, as the world continued to suffer from bloody conflicts that claimed the lives of thousands. These individuals were not only victims of heavy weapons fire; the destruction of infrastructure and the severing of relief supplies profoundly impacted these conflicts, making them even more cruel and bloody. The Internet played a crucial role, not just through the launch of cyberattacks or the spread of propaganda and misinformation, but also by targeting its resources and cutting off services, whether due to the disruption of power stations or direct attacks on communication towers. This digital isolation became a weapon in the hands of conflicting forces to exert pressure, obscure serious violations, and make the targeting of communication lines as significant as that of military barracks and vital installations.

In contrast, online communication has played a vital role in mobilizing donations, distributing supplies, reporting and rescuing victims, and mitigating the impact of these conflicts on people’s lives, highlighting the importance of defending the right to communication in areas of armed conflict and war.

The Weapon of Digital Isolation:

The use of communications technology in armed conflicts extends beyond the development of smart weapons, cyberattacks, and sophisticated hacking operations. Targeting communication networks and imposing digital isolation on conflict areas have become effective weapons in times of conflict.

The war in Gaza stands as a prominent example of using the Internet as a tool for pressure, isolation, and intimidation in areas of armed conflict, with network outages being a major feature during the events and network efficiency dropping to only 5% in some areas. Israel’s destruction of 80% of Gaza’s telecommunications infrastructure, including cellular towers, fiber optic cables, and Internet service providers’ offices, alongside attacks on civilians trying to repair them and those attempting to capture communications broadcasts, highlights the severity of these actions. The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor documented the deliberate killing of at least seven Palestinian civilians in less than a week while they were trying to capture communications and Internet transmissions.

In Sudan, the country experienced successive Internet interruptions, with the longest occurring in February 2024. The total interruption of communications and Internet networks resulted in the paralysis of various sectors, public services, and banking systems, exacerbating the isolation of the population, obstructing aid delivery, and complicating family communications.

In Ukraine, Internet shutdowns were part of Russia’s offensive strategy, either by directly targeting telecommunications towers or as a result of the destruction of basic service infrastructures, leading to partial or complete service outages.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) received a unique request from Ukraine to remove Russian domains from the Internet as sources of propaganda and misinformation, a request that was rejected but reflects the growing desire to politicize the Internet and use it as a weapon in conflicts.

In 2022, Access Now documented 187 Internet outages, including 84 in India, with 49 outages in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir following the revocation of its self-rule.

Earlier this year, the Internet Society Organization (ISO) reported 124 instances of governments or other actors shutting down or blocking access to Internet services in 18 countries, including 55 times during unrest, ranging from a few hours to a week.

Network Relief:

The disclosure of a video in July 2023, showing two women being publicly humiliated in India’s Manipur region, sparked outrage. The delay in releasing the video for over two months was linked to the decision to cut off the Internet in the region, which was experiencing ethnic conflict. Similar patterns were observed in Ethiopia, where continuous Internet shutdowns in conflict zones like the Tigray and Amhara regions have hampered efforts to report crimes, provide assistance to victims, or even prevent human rights violations.

These incidents underscore the positive value of Internet connectivity in conflict zones and its role in protecting civilian lives and mitigating the effects of conflicts. News sites, electronic platforms of civil and relief organizations, and social networks play a crucial role in helping residents survive, obtain assistance, and respond to evacuation warnings. They also provide essential communication channels for families and enable the broadcasting of images and videos from the heart of events, which may deter the commission of crimes and human rights violations. This highlights the implicit protection for civilians through the pressure of disclosure and evidence, in addition to countering military propaganda by providing alternative news sources.

In Sudan, citizens used Twitter and electronic platforms like Haga and Wafra to organize relief efforts, demonstrating the importance of the Internet in times of conflict. This significance led the United Nations to recognize the defense of continued Internet communication as a human rights issue, especially during conflicts. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report in June 2022, warning of the severe impacts of Internet blocking on daily life and human rights, and made recommendations to states, companies, development agencies, and civil society to prevent and mitigate the effects of such policies.

Alternative Networks:

The name of Starlink, a satellite internet provider owned by American billionaire Elon Musk, emerged during armed conflicts in various parts of the world as an effective way to reconnect to the World Wide Web. This was particularly evident in the Russian-Ukrainian war, during which the company provided thousands of stations offering unlimited data connections from anywhere in the country through a network of satellites in low Earth orbit. These connections provided access to high-speed internet, allowing the government to continue communications and bypass Russian servers. However, the challenges of these alternatives, especially the material cost, are significant. For example, the cost of providing satellite internet in Ukraine neared $20 million per month, totaling $400 million by the end of 2023.

In Gaza, the UAE government announced in February 2024 its plan to use Starlink’s services to offer high-speed internet at the Emirati Field Hospital in southern Gaza. This initiative aims to provide real-time video consultations in partnership with several international medical institutions.

Starlink’s services are not the only alternative for restoring terrestrial internet connections. Competitors like OneWeb, Amazon, and China’s broadband satellite network project offer similar technology. Other technical alternatives include mesh networks and Alphabet’s Loon balloons project, which provides internet connectivity from the stratosphere. Powered by solar energy and managed by artificial intelligence, this project is effective in connecting the internet in relief areas, with applications in Peru and Kenya.

In October 2023, the Internet Governance Forum in Kyoto, Japan, highlighted the need for technical and policy solutions to maintain internet connectivity during conflicts. It suggested integrating internet shutdown indicators into crisis prediction and monitoring procedures to improve the response of responsible authorities. The forum also discussed developing strategies to confront shutdowns, emphasizing the importance of private sector governance in protecting the internet from political pressures and establishing a strong, flexible digital framework for communication and information systems. It proposed interpreting and applying international humanitarian law to include cyberspace use, internet shutdowns during wars and conflicts, and sanctioning parties that deliberately disrupt communications.

However, technological alternatives to internet cutoffs are not a long-term solution for protecting communication rights during conflicts. The politicization of these solutions, by granting or blocking access based on the political stance of providers, highlights the political and humanitarian responsibility of various parties to defend individuals’ rights to secure access to telecommunications and digital information. This responsibility falls on governments committed to minimizing the consequences of armed conflict, as well as international organizations, local agencies, civil society institutions, and technology companies. These entities play crucial roles in enhancing the range and coverage capabilities of networks, securing them against cyber threats, and cooperating to rebuild damaged communication infrastructure and secure access to non-traditional solutions.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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