Exploiting the right to internet access to infringe other human rights
In an authoritarian context such as Xinjiang, the right to internet access appears to favor Chinese state surveillance and detention of Uyghurs, acting as a disruptor, rather than an enabler, of Uyghur human rights.
In July 2009, deadly riots broke out between Muslim Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang autonomous region. Convinced that the riots had been orchestrated via the internet, text messages and long-distance phone calls, the Chinese government shut down the region’s internet access for 10 months, rendering it the longest internet shutdown in Chinese history.
The 2009 shutdown was the first large-scale sign of a shift in tactics of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): the use of technology to control information. While Xinjiang’s Uyghur population is increasingly ‘shut down’ from the rest of the world through a strict automated surveillance regime, they are expected (or rather forced) to own a mobile phone and to access the internet domestically. Whereas Uyghur internet access in 2009 seemed to be perceived by the CCP as a threat to the country’s stability and security, the Party now sees internet access as an opportunity for detecting ‘extremist’ behavior through constant monitoring and filtering of online content. In fact, going “off grid” has become a crime: not just deemed as suspicious but rather ‘extremist’, providing authorities with sufficient ground for detaining suspects in so-called re-education camps.
Meanwhile, in the light of similar crackdowns on the Internet in other authoritarian contexts, human rights advocates and policy-makers have advocated that the right to internet access should be a universal right. In a 2017 report, UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye underscored the importance of internet access, claiming that “individuals depend on digital access to exercise fundamental rights, including freedom of opinion and expression, the right to life and a range of economic, social and cultural rights”. Similarly, his predecessor Frank la Rue pointed to the right to internet access as an “enabler of other rights”, further claiming that the internet boosts “economic, social and political development, and contributes to the progress of humankind as a whole”. As true as these claims might be for liberal contexts, the extensive monitoring of Internet content that has been paired with increased access directs us to a different empirical reality in authoritarian contexts, where the right to internet access does not equate to increased freedoms, and perhaps even the opposite.
The Xinjiang case illustrates how the mainstreaming of the right to internet access aligns with the CCP’s strategy of repressing the Uyghur population. Over the past years, Party’s security strategy has relied to a significant extent on an extensive set of automated technologies, ubiquitously controlling and monitoring Uyghurs. A central component of its surveillance regime is the Integrated Joint Operation Platform (IJOP), a database where massive amounts of Uyghur personal information are stored, gathered by state authorities at various checkpoints, household visits, ‘convenience policing stations’, but also by CCTV cameras, Wi-Fi sniffers, and an app that Uyghurs are forced to download. Sifted by various algorithms, the AI-driven app supports Chinese surveillance by collecting data, reporting on activities or circumstances, and prompting investigative missions for anything deemed ‘suspicious’.
As revealed in an extensive case study by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the IJOP pays particular attention to 36 “person types” that are filtered out of the data. Besides those who ‘know how to make explosives’ or ‘have returned from abroad’, some of these suspect person types are:
- Those who used smartphones in the past but have stopped using them (either altogether or shifting to analogue phones).
- Households that use an ‘abnormal’ amount of electricity.
- Those that are flagged by the IJOP for using an ‘abnormal’ amount of electricity.
- Individuals that use ‘suspicious internet tools’ such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and applications like WhatsApp and Skype.
- Those who have gone “off-grid”, for example by “switching off their phone repeatedly” or being missing for periods of time.
In other words, Uyghurs are not only detained for the way they use the internet, for downloading ‘suspicious’ content or being in touch with relatives abroad, but also for not using the Internet at all. The mainstreaming of the right to internet access is problematic for Uyghurs in so far as it may be used in the CCP’s narrative that refraining from internet usage is a suspicious and criminal act. In that way, Uyghurs have no way of escaping the CCP’s constant surveillance gaze.
The targeting of “off-grid” individuals is not unique to Xinjiang: going offline is commonly seen as a suspicious activity by law enforcement. But here, the pervasive nature of the surveillance system means that visibility is itself a strategy of control and deterrence. This case reminds us of China’s expanding global influence as a tech superpower, with at least 80 countries having adopted its surveillance technology as early as 2008. With a significant part of the Global South relying on Chinese surveillance technology – examples including Zimbabwe and Ethiopia – this case illustrates the importance of taking non-Western perspectives into account when promoting digital rights worldwide. More deeply, it points to the need to reflect on the Western liberal bias of the digital rights agenda as a whole.