Over the past month, people in Lebanon have been resorting to social media to share updates on the ongoing revolution, combat media bias, engage in constructive debates, and organize events and initiatives. Meanwhile, fellow revolutionaries in Iraq are banned from adopting a similar approach.
Having deemed the right to access and share information too threatening to its interests, the Iraqi government has enforced crippling restrictions on internet and social media usage in the country.
"From our documentation and monitoring of the situation in Iraq, we believe that the internet shutdown does in fact present a difficulty for reporting live from demonstrations where violations are happening, and in some cases, it limits the freedom of assembly. It also appears that Iraqi authorities want a total blackout, especially around moments when their security forces are trying to 'clear' certain areas from protesters," Richard Alam, Iraq and Yemen Campaigner at Amnesty International, told StepFeed.
Since the beginning of October, Iraqi demonstrators have been protesting against the entire ruling class and demanding the end of the political system that has been in force since 2003. Similar to their Lebanese counterparts, Iraqis are condemning corruption and calling for more employment opportunities and better public services. Leaders are widely accused of abusing public funds and enriching themselves as well as the country's elite while failing to provide their people with the most basic of services such as electricity, clean water, and proper infrastructure.
Security personnel has used excessive force and live ammunition in an attempt to quell these protests, killing at least 250 Iraqi protesters in the past month. Apart from the use of lethal force, Iraqi rulers have enforced internet slowdowns and social media blockages, according to human rights groups.
"Iraqi government, we are watching"
Internet blockage watchdog NetBlocks has been regularly documenting and reporting the status of internet and social media access in Iraq.
According to the observatory, the Iraqi government has imposed a curfew-like restriction on internet access since Oct. 8, blocking the internet from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. on a daily basis. Iraq has also been blocking social media and disrupting access to networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Telegram. These restrictions are imposed across Iraq's centrally administered cities, including Baghdad, Basra, and Karbala, while independent zones such as the Kurdish northern cities remain unaffected.
"The diurnal blocking measure only appeared to add insult to injury for the general public while doing little to address protesters' demands for transparency and accountability," NetBlocks states in its report.
How are people coping with the blockage? Some users are resorting to software circumvention solutions, while others are using international SIM cards and data roaming. However, NetBlocks notes that such options are "slow, expensive or not available to most Iraqis in practice."
Disruption of telecommunication networks has made it difficult for observers and activists to evaluate the true scope of human rights violations in Iraq. It has also made it difficult for protesters to access emergency services or reach out for assistance. "Many citizens remain unaccounted for since early October," according to NetBlocks.
Still, Alam pointed out that activists are making an effort to share updates and footage online despite the restrictions. "As soon as the internet is back, activists upload their videos and post evidence online. Also, many are using a virtual private network (VPN) to access blocked applications," he explained.
As for the legitimacy of the internet shutdown under international law, Alam noted that the Iraqi government may justify the restriction by proving its necessity, proportionality, and legality. "Having said that, we think that internet shutdowns often constitute a violation of the right to freedom of expression and sometimes, as is the case in Iraq, the freedom of assembly," he added.
According to a report delivered to the United Nations Human Rights Council, internet shutdowns rarely fulfill the criteria of necessity and proportionality, rendering them unlawful in most cases. Therefore, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression urges states to maintain internet access at all times, particularly during political unrest.
The blockage is costing companies millions of dollars in losses
While Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has accused protesters of costing the country's industrial sector "billions of dollars," the government has caused major losses itself through its online network disruptions.
One bank official said the private sector has incurred losses amounting to $40 million per day due to internet outages, according to The Independent. The source said private banks, mobile phone companies, money transfer service providers, and tourism offices have totaled almost $1.5 billion in losses over the past month.
According to NetBlocks, network disruptions have constituted the "largest single economic loss" during the protests, causing an estimated impact to the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) exceeding one billion dollars in October alone, as assessed by the Cost of Shutdown Tool.