Policy

Internet shutdowns: The new authoritarian weapon of choice

Some 850 internet blackouts have been documented in the last decade in countries around the globe — 90% of them in the last five years.

Wall with barbed wire

A new report released Wednesday by Access Now and Jigsaw documents internet shutdowns.

Photo: Sigmund/Unsplash

Over the last decade, governments worldwide have intentionally shut down the internet at least 850 times, with a whopping 90% of those shutdowns taking place over just the last five years.

What's behind this troubling trend? "More people are getting online and getting access to the internet," said Marianne Díaz Hernández, a lawyer in Venezuela and a fellow with the nonprofit Access Now. "As governments see this as a threat, they start thinking the internet is something they need to control."

These staggering statistics come from a new report released Wednesday by Access Now and Jigsaw, a division of Alphabet that focuses on addressing societal threats with technology. The report documents the history of internet shutdowns over the last decade, the economic toll shutdowns take on the countries that impose them and what governments and the broader business and civil society community can do to stop what has fast become a widespread and grave human rights violation.

Felicia Anthonio leads Access Now's #KeepItOn campaign, which has been documenting internet shutdowns since 2016. "Internet shutdowns don't ensure stability or resolve crises that are happening," Anthonio said. "It's actually endangering people's lives."

The report, published in Jigsaw's publication The Current, traces the recent spate of internet shutdowns back to the five-day shutdown in Egypt in 2011. Though exact data on every shutdown that has ever happened is non-existent and smaller-scale blackouts had taken place before that, the authors write, "never before had an entire country, one where more than a quarter of the population was connected to the internet, simply severed itself from the open web."

Egypt's shutdown sparked condemnation from some Western countries, the authors write, but the number of internet blackouts has only expanded since then. These are often timed to elections in countries around the world, costing the economies of those countries billions of dollars. One estimate cited in the study suggested that Myanmar, which has had a string of severe shutdowns, may have lost 2.5% of its GDP as a result. That's about "half the damage wrought by the Great Recession on the US in less than a third of the time," the authors write.

That's to say nothing of the impact of shutdowns on individuals, some of whom shared their stories with Access Now for the report. A Ugandan woman told the story of how she went to town to use the ATM only to find it wasn't working, and neither was anything else connected to the internet. "Everything was down and everyone seemed confused about what was happening and stranded like me," the woman wrote.

A person in Ethiopia described the outage that occurred after a government attack on Tigray, saying he's had no way to reach his father, who is in poor health. "Someone recently passed through Addis Ababa and told me they were okay, but I can't be sure. I still haven't heard his voice," the person wrote.

The 2011 Egyptian shutdown and others since have drawn attention to the role internet service providers play in countries where very few exist. "In highly developed markets like the United States, where there are thousands of ISPs, the sheer size of the market provides a degree of protection. But in many countries, as in Egypt in 2011, the web can be brought to a shuddering halt with just a few phone calls," the authors write.

Access Now is calling on ISPs in those countries to resist government pressure to block or throttle internet access and to report the requests they receive. Global companies like Facebook and Google, meanwhile, have a role to play in tracking internet outages and determining whether they were intentional, Anthonio said.

"Maybe Facebook is being blocked or Google platforms are being shut down in these areas. Can you find out what is happening on the ground? That context is always important," she said. "You can see a drop in traffic, but once you have the context like, OK, there is an upcoming election, there is an ongoing conflict — then we're able to see whether this is an intentional attempt by the authorities to keep the rest of the world in the dark or if this a technical problem."

This sort of collaboration also contributes to the rising numbers Access Now has documented: The number of internet shutdowns being counted around the world is rising in part because there are now people actually doing the counting.

"Jigsaw has been forecasting and confronting those emerging threats around the world," said Bomo Piri, Jigsaw's head of marketing. "One of the things we've developed is the Google transparency report, which is a tool that is actually designed to help expose the topic of internet shutdowns by tracking traffic disruptions."

Governments are also paying attention. A number of global groups, including the United Nations, have condemned internet shutdowns as a violation of basic human rights. But Anthonio insists more pressure is needed: "The more voices we have speaking the same language and pushing back against this particular problem, the more the issue becomes important for the various stakeholders that are able to influence or bring that problem to an end," she said.

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