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In the face of over 50,000*coronavirus-related deaths in the UK alone - potentially as high as 60,000* - why should we care about digital rights?

Beside the grave risks to life posed by Covid-19, your rights in using Internet services may seem like a lower priority. However, as lockdown measures make entire societies digitally-dependent, it has never been more important to safeguard people's activities online.

The coronavirus public health emergency - and specifically the lockdown measures - changed the 'normal' way of life overnight as entire societies were obliged to stay at home. These measures created an environment where digital systems became the arteries of social and economic life for entire populations. The situation created a universal dependence on digital communications that has arguably not been the case previously. While lockdown is easing, the digital dependence is likely to remain high.

For their own safety, people have swapped cafes, office and streets for a digitally-mediated environment. Down the digital highways and by-ways, people who were stuck indoors sought everything from social contacts to essential groceries via the online interface. The anxiety over supermarket online delivery slots was symptomatic of the way that broadband networks have become vital for some of life's basic needs. Working from home was not a lifestyle choice, but the only way to maintain an income or keep a business going. Home schooling via online lessons was a necessity to continue children's education whilst classrooms were shut. In the saddest way, some had to watch the funeral of a relative on their laptop screen.

The use of communications to serve our most basic instincts for food, and safety and relationships is arguably a new iteration of the idea expressed by Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of needs. It would seem to suggest a sensitivity to interference that is very high. It does reflect a major change in the dependence of society as a whole on digital systems.

It marks a new milestone in the development of the Internet, once a nice-to-have accessory, is now an essential utility. Broadband, smartphones, and social media accounts are key organs feeding into massive communications arteries that connect homes, shops, schools, governments and businesses.

This is the reason why digital rights matter. There is a body of caselaw that the right to freedom of expression implies a right of access to the Internet. Any interference with that right must be prescribed by law and necessary to address a specific issue. It's arguable that the Covid-19 emergency has broadened this concept to other rights, such as the right to work.

Digital dependency in network data

Data from network companies and social media corroborate these anecdotal observations. The networks report that internet traffic volumes have grown phenomenally since governments around the world began to lockdown societies to reduce the spread of the deadly virus. The data reveals how lockdown measures have impacted on what people are doing. It shows, for example, decreases in the use of applications like mapping software (people aren't travelling) and an astonishing increase in video conferencing applications.

The figures do vary between providers - likely to be because they are measuring traffic on their own servers, which would vary with the geographic areas they serve, as well as their customer base. However, the trend is clear.

UK network data from the London Internet Exchange (LINX) shows that Internet traffic overall reach new peaks on 24th March, the day after the government announced lockdown measures. It rose from 3.86 Terabits/s to 4.17 Terabits/s (as published in ISP Review). A higher peak of 4.52 Terabits/s was reported a week later on 27 March.

BT said in a statement on its website that since lockdown measures had been in place, daytime traffic had increased by an enormous 35-60% compared with normal traffic volumes, with a peak load of 7.5Terabits/s. BT put this down to an increase in home working.

BT's mobile arm, EE, reported a 45% upswing in data usage from smartphones - connections to the Internet and apps - in the period from February to May. Interestingly, it reported a decline of 58% in data usage in central London, yet it witnessed massive spikes in data from commuter towns around London such as Stevenage (120 per cent up) and Hereford (118 per cent up).

As far as can be seen from the data that has been published, the upward trend for Internet traffic during the Covid-19 emergency is global. Cloudflare, an international cloud services provider, has been monitoring traffic on a global scale. It reported as early as 12 March that is was seeing a 10 per cent increase in Internet traffic in regions impacted by Covid-19, but suggested that lockdown measures resulted in a much higher increase - 30% in Italy. A month later, on 23 April, Cloudflare reported a 50% increase in Internet traffic in Portugal, and similar in Spain and the UK. Mapping the changes in individual cities, it noted a 22% increase in London and Paris, and 11 per cent in Berlin, compared with 33 percent in Los Angeles and New York.

DE Cix in Frankfurt, which claims to be the world's largest Internet exchange, reported a 10 per cent increase in overall traffic at its Frankfurt exchange, where peak traffic volume reached 9.1 Terabits/s after the German government imposed social distancing measure on 22 March.

Fastly, another international cloud service provider, has monitored a 78 per cent increase in the UK, 38-39 per cent in France and Spain, and 100 per cent in Italy, and equipment vendor Nokia saw a 20-40 per cent increase in overall traffic as a result of lockdown measures.

What's especially interesting is how the network traffic data reveals increases in specific types of traffic that reflect people's activities during lockdown. Traffic for both video calls and streaming services shot up in the period since the Covid-19 crisis began.

In the UK, EE saw a massive spike in the Zoom video conferencing traffic from 25 March (compared with 26 February) that does not appear to have subsided. In the US, a 300 per cent increase in use of video conferencing apps such as Zoom and Skype was monitored by Nokia.

Zoom itself reported that its user based shot up astonishingly fast from 10 million users last December to 200 million users in March this year, as reported by Reuters. Participant numbers are an even more staggering 300 million.

Cloud service providers are massive beneficiaries of the change in working from home, and this has been reflected in their share prices, as reported by the Financial Times.

The panic for online supermarket delivery slots, experienced anecdotally by many people (including the author), was vindicated by EE's data which showed spikes in users connecting to Waitrose, Sainsbury's and Tesco on 25 March (2 days after lockdown announced).

This is supported by data from the analytics company ContentSquare, which suggests that traffic to online supermarket websites globally surged by 251%.

Interestingly, the EE data shows a spike at 5pm on 10 May, when Mr Johnson gave the 5pm briefing. Whilst not conclusive, it is an indicator that people are using broadband to access government announcements on Covid-19.

Digital dependency in social media analytics

Social media statistics support the network providers' experience. Statista reports that 40% of respondents to a UK survey said they had increased their use of social media due to the Covid-19 emergency. 33 per cent said they had increased their use of Facebook, 39 per cent said they were streaming more content, and 28 per cent using WhatsApp more. According to market research conducted by Global Web Index (GWI), 9 % of UK respondents said they were spending significantly more time on social media and messaging services. The GWI research was conducted between 16-20 March 2020, just before the UK announced the lockdown measures on 23 March.

The overall number of people using social media platforms showed a remarkable increase. For example, Twitter's user numbers grew by 47 million, reflecting a 14% increase globally from January to March 2020. In the UK, Twitter grew by 6% or just over 1 million new users. (Source: Digital 2020 April Global Statshot Report: Most important data on digital audiences during coronavirus). This is all happening in a context where data usage is on an upward curve, even in normal times.

Stakeholder reactions

There have been some notable reactions from industry stakeholders. Some broadband providers dropped bandwidth caps during the emergency period, as for example, AT&T in the US and many UK ISPs. In the UK, providers appear to have been able to support the load, according to up and download speeds, and network speeds in April measured by OOkla.

By contrast, EU network providers were effectively given the thumbs up to throttle users' bandwidth, effectively allowing them to circumvent an EU law on net neutrality - apparently because some providers were struggling with the increased load.

The reaction from social media platforms, already under pressure from governments and other stakeholders, has been to increase their use of automation for content policing. Their artificial intelligence systems are taking on more of the load to identify content to be restricted and to implement the restrictions, operating under self-made rules.

The digital rights question

This then draws us in to the digital rights question, because restrictions can be an interference with rights online. Digital rights are essentially the same as the rights that we hold in the real world, as applied to our activities on electronic communications networks and services. An important difference is that the interpretation of the rights and how they apply, relies on a technical understanding. For example, in order to assess whether a communication has been interfered with, it may be necessary to know how a communications provider is manipulating the code, (see Lawrence Lessig: Code 2.0. and the 'code is law' principle).

The network and social media statistics substantiate the new dependency on the Internet and related apps. Whilst the percentages vary, due to the different characteristics of the user of base of the individual networks, the overall trend is consistent. There was, during the period of lockdown measures, an increase in volume of network traffic, and a marked growth in the use of certain apps and access to websites and services that reflect essential day to day activities, like ordering food and conversations with colleagues, friends and family. The indicators suggest that this will continue, according to market research by The Next Web.

If we follow the ideas implicit in Maslow's hierarchy of needs , it would seem to suggest a sensitivity to interference that is very high.

The human rights impact is about the scale of the dependency, the volume of usage, but it's also about the sensitivity of the activities and nature of the impact that any restriction would make. Any interference - blocking, filtering, scanning, surveillance - not only threatens people's ability to get entertainment (as we might have once assumed), but it also threatens people's ability to earn a living or get an education, maintain vital social contacts or obtain food - and keep themselves safe.

From the public policy debate, we know that broadband speed can be limited limited by a provider, but what this new situation shows us is how the provider cannot judge the sensitivity of that limitation. If bandwidth were to be squeezed to a point where people cannot link in to a video call, it could interfere with someone grieving. What if the provider's intervention breaks up a stream as the user is watching a funeral?

What it if a social media account is blocked and someone who is isolating cannot maintain vital links to friends and family? Supposing the conversation in the form of posts, comments and messaging is the only inter-personal communication they have. The interference risks impacting their mental health and well-being. Or indeed, they rely on the video service provided by one of the big platforms, to watch the funeral. The platform is in no position to judge the necessity of keeping open that account.

The digital world is already awash with vast pools of data that are created by our ever-increasing online footprints, enabling providers and governments to track our every move. Those data pools just got bigger during lockdown measures and the opportunities for surveillance-type interference have increased exponentially. Data can be used to address a public health emergency, but States must observe data protection law.

To be clear, this does not mean that bad actors can get away with it. The law does enable illegal content and unlawful activities to be addressed. This is about keeping the channels of communications open in a time when people are highly dependent on them.

These are very sensitive matters where interference with rights can have a significant impact on the individual. It exposes a certain fragility in digital systems. Safeguarding people's rights to communicate freely, and go about their daily lives online without intrusion by State or private actors, has never been more important.

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Iptegrity is made available free of charge. You may cite my work, with attribution. If you reference the material in this article, kindly cite the author as Dr Monica Horten, Visiting Fellow, London School of Economics and Political Science , and link back to Iptegrity.com. You will also find my book for purchase via Amazon.

About me: I've been analysing analysing European Union policy for more than 10 years. I hold a PhD in EU Communications Policy as well as a Post-graduate diploma in marketing. I've worked with the Council of Europe on Internet governance issues, and I was on the Committee that drafted the CoE Recommendation on Internet Freedoms. For many years I was a telecoms journalist, writing for the FT among others, and I was an early adopter of the Internet.

Please get in touch if you'd like to know more about my work.

If you liked this article, you may also like my book The Closing of the Net available in Kindle and Paperback from only £15.99!

*The UK figures for Covid-related deaths are contested. Hence I have used the official figure released by the Office of National Statistics released in June 2020 for deaths involving Covid-19, and the figure calculated by the Financial Times for excess deaths in the UK, published on 26 May.

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About Iptegrity

Iptegrity.com is the website of Dr Monica Horten. I am an  independent policy advisor: online safety, technology and human rights. In April 2024, I was appointed as an independent expert on the Council of Europe Committee of Experts on online safety and empowerment of content creators and users. I am a published author, and post-doctoral scholar. I hold a PhD from the University of Westminster, and a DipM from the Chartered Institute of Marketing. I cover the UK and EU. I'm a former tech journalist, and an experienced panelist and Chair. My media credits include the BBC, iNews, Times, Guardian and Politico.

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