• Why do ISPs comply with government requests to shut down the internet?

  • What role do the ISPs’ shareholders play in such decisions?

  • Can ISPs be held accountable for their actions?


This story problematizes the responsibility of internet service providers (ISPs) in politically motivated disruptions of access to (specific) internet services.

ISPs, when faced with a government request to block internet access, can be confronted with conflicting local and international laws.

National license agreements can contain clauses that require ISPs to temporarily shut down their services on government request during periods of national emergencies. If a company’s majority shareholders are headquartered in established democracies, they may be held accountable for their actions abroad. Under the EU Regulation No. 1215/2012 of 12 December 2012, for instance, victims of human rights violations can make a tort claim against companies domiciled in the European Union.

In response to increasing pressure from civil society, many firms actively promote higher social corporate responsibility standards. In the telecom sector, a group of multinational internet companies, including Orange and Vodafone, founded the Global Network Initiative ( that develops guidelines to respect freedom of expression and privacy.

In 2020 the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice ruled that the September 2017 internet shutdown ordered by the Togolese government during protests is unlawful and a violation of the right to freedom of expression as protected by international law. Despite the illegality of many internet shutdowns, to date, no ISP has faced any legal consequences.


MACKINNON, R. (2011). Liberation Technology: China's Networked Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy 22(2): 32-46.

Description of the pressure Chinese internet companies face when they do not follow a government order to censor or surveil internet traffic, such as a revocation of their license agreement.

PARSONS, C. (2019). The (In) Effectiveness of Voluntarily Produced Transparency Reports.Business & Society 58(1): 103-131.

Some telecommunications companies disclose how often and on what grounds government agencies compel customer data or request content blocking or disruptions. This study demonstrates that the extent to which these transparency reports are useful in determining actual corporate behavior tends to be fairly limited.

PIGRAU SOLÉ, A., ÁLVAREZ TORNÉ, M., CARDESA-SALZMANN, A., et al. (2016). Human Rights in European Business: A Practical Handbook for Civil Society Organisations and Human Rights Defenders. Tarragona Centre for Environmental Law Studies.

Introduction of EU regulations that allow for the litigation against human rights violations by corporate actors legally registered in the European Union. 

RODAN, G. (1998).The Internet and Political Control in Singapore. Political Science Quarterly 113(1): 63-89.

Discussion of the role of government licenses in controlling the provision of internet access and content in Singapore. 

SCHERER, A., & PALAZZO, G. (2011). The New Political Role of Business in a Globalized World – A Review of a New Perspective on CSR and its Implications for the Firm, Governance, and Democracy. Journal of Management Studies 48(4): 899-931.

Discussion of the concept of social corporate responsibility, which provides an overview of how multinational corporations can address human rights violations. 


Véronique Wavre
Lisa Garbe @LaserGabi
Tina Freyburg @TFreyburg

University of St.Gallen IPW-SEPS
Müller-Friedbergstrasse 8
CH - 9000 St.Gallen

Pia Valaer

Flüelastrasse 16
CH - 8048 Zürich

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