How governments shut the internet down to suppress dissent
Access Now, a non-profit digital rights advocacy group, has released its annual report on global internet shutdowns. The report reveals governments around world increasingly shutting down the internet, often to stifle dissent, and frequently doing so during times of protest or elections.
The annual report, entitled Keep It On, counts a record number of 213 internet shutdowns around the world in 2019. This rapidly rising count grew from 196 in 2018, and only 75 back in 2016.
The technical definition used by Access Now to determine what constitutes an internet shutdown is, “an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information”.
Unlike the more sophisticated methods countries such as China employ to censor and control digital communications, the kinds of internet shutdowns chronicled by Access Now are more literal, brute-force disconnections. As well as entire internet blackouts, the report includes cases of governments blocking access to social media platforms during specific periods.
“Whether governments are using shutdowns as a tool to silence critics, in an attempt to contain protests, or to conceal human rights abuses, 2019 has been the year of longer internet shutdowns, as well as targeted shutdowns affecting vulnerable groups or during crucial events – during a protest, an election, or a political speech by an opponent, for example,” explains Berhan Taye, a senior analyst at Access Now.
Longer and longer
The report notes a growing trend of longer and longer internet shutdowns, with 35 cases of shutdowns in 2019 lasting for stretches longer than seven days. Sri Lanka, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Iran, and Iraq were just a few of the countries deploying the tactic for more than a week.
Chad, the land-locked African nation, takes the dubious honor of longest internet blackout in history with a 472 day shutdown spanning March 2018 to July 2019. The incredible block was mainly focused on social media platforms and messaging services such as WhatsApp.
President of Chad, Idriss Deby, first instituted the shutdown in 2018 as the country’s parliament was recommending an amendment to the constitution allowing Deby to remain in office until 2033. Deby said at the time that the internet restrictions were designed to maintain security of the nation in the face of terrorist threats, and upon lifting the restrictions over a year later he reiterated those justifications.
"For a country like Chad that has gone through dark times, it is not permissible for the internet to be hijacked for malicious purposes by certain individuals with evil intentions for peace and national unity," Deby said in July 2019.
The big blackout
While the longest comprehensive internet shutdown in history is still ongoing in Myanmar, over 240 days and counting, the complete internet blackout in targeted regions of India takes the prize for most devastating under the pretense of a democratic nation.
On August 5, 2019, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi completely blocked internet access to the Jammu and Kashmir region of India. Literally overnight, millions of people’s lives were thrown into chaos as the implications of such a profound internet shutdown really took hold.
Hospitals and doctors, who shared information virtually, were instantly thrown into disarray. Educational institutions desperately turned back to old text books, while almost all businesses struggled to find ways to continue operating in a new world of no digital communication. Even the region’s law enforcement agencies struggled. losing contact with informants due to blocks on internet messaging services. One source recently told Buzzfeed the internet blackout has fueled the local narcotic trade.
Access Now log the Jammu and Kashmir internet shutdown as lasting 175 days. Officially the shutdown was lifted in January 2020, after the Indian Supreme Court deemed the restriction constitutionally suspect. However, 3G and 4G internet access is still suspended in the region, with the government only switching on 2G internet. And, even now, most social media access is still blocked with internet access only delivering a small number of white-listed websites that have been approved by the government.
Another growing trend noted in the Access Now report is increasingly specific targeting of internet shutdowns. Instead of broad sweeping blackouts, 2019 saw an increasing number of shutdowns focusing on particular geographic regions, almost always concentrating on silencing minority groups.
The aforementioned Myanmar internet shutdown presented as one of the more perniciously targeted blackouts of recent times. The laser-focused, and still ongoing, shutdown covers the Rakhine and Chin states in west Myanmar, where the country’s minority Rohingya muslim population have been battling military oppression for several years.
The shutdown was justified by the Myanmar government as a response to violent actions by Rohingya militants, who were alleged to be using internet messaging services to coordinate attacks on security forces. Human rights organizations have claimed the internet blackouts are fundamentally designed to prevent documentation of criminal abuses undertaken against the minority muslim population.
In a related scenario, another stunningly targeted internet shutdown in 2019 focused on Rohingya refugees fleeing the violence in Myanmar by crossing the border into neighboring Bangladesh. Nearly one million refugees in camps in Bangladesh suffered frequent telecommunications network blackouts as the Bangladesh government says internet-based communications were being blocked due to criminal uses. Human rights observers have suggested the tactic is intended to dissuade further refugees from seeking safety in Bangladesh.
Elections and protests
“As we look into the countries that are ordering shutdowns and the context in which they occur, we are concerned at the numerous cases of intentional internet disruptions that took place during critical events such as protests or elections,” says Access Now’s advocacy director, Melody Patry.
The report discusses 12 internet shutdowns in 2019 that occurred during election periods, and 65 shutdowns during civil protests. Election-related shutdowns were seen in India, Malawi, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The most striking election-related shutdown chronicled in the report was seen in the small democratic African nation of Benin. Because Benin was previously seen as a free democratic nation, the Access Now report describes the blanket internet shutdown that occurred on the country’s election day as “unexpected” and “most alarming.”
Benin had, since the 1990s, been regarded as an ideal model of multiparty democracy for burgeoning African nations, but repressive crackdowns on civil liberties by an increasingly authoritarian president over the past year culminated in an election day internet blackout, with the government citing concerns over dissemination of “fake news.”
2019 revealed the increasingly common tactic of oppressive governments deploying total internet shutdowns to quell, control and suppress street protests. Blackouts during protests were detected in Zimbabwe, Venezuela, India, Indonesia, and Egypt. But the most concerning protest-related internet blackouts noted by Access Now were not ones simply devised to disrupt organization and assembly tactics.
As protests against the government in Sudan expanded in June 2019, activist groups began a series of civil disobedience campaigns. The government responded by gradually broadening its internet shutdowns, until the entire country was essentially blacked out.
On June 3, 2019, more than 100 people participating in a reportedly peaceful sit-in were killed, and another 700 injured, as the military moved in to disperse the protesters. The internet shutdown blocked the ability for protesters to livestream the violent attack, or even effectively communicate the violence to the outside world.
A similar scenario played out in Iraq in October. As protests against the government escalated, a near-total internet shutdown was deployed before thousands of armed security forces were sent out onto the streets. At least 100 people were killed, and hundreds more injured or arrested.
Fake news, terrorism, and maintaining public safety
How do governments justify these dramatic internet shutdowns? Echoing the 2018 Keep It On report, the most common reason is to fight “fake news,” “hate speech” and “content promoting violence.” It is suggested the reasons often cited by governments to justify these internet blackouts are rarely what independent observers conclude to be the real cause.
“Precautionary measures” to maintain “public safety” are often cited by governments, particularly in India, to justify internet blackouts. However, the Access Now report suggests these excuses often coincide with military actions and protest movements suggesting the internet blocks are primarily being used as a way to stifle dissent and control information flows.
The good news?
While internet shutdowns are being increasingly used as a tool for oppressive governments to maintain systems of control, there are growing numbers of legal challenges to these shutdowns, often instigated with the support of international human rights organizations.
Cases in Sudan, India, Zimbabwe and Pakistan in 2019 have all demonstrated court victories over governments exceeding their legal authority. These legal battles are becoming increasingly important in establishing whether internet access should be declared to be a basic human right, a move that could subsequently criminalize the act of shutting it off.
In 2016 the United Nations Human Rights Council did pass a resolution affirming internet access to be a human right, and condemning governments disrupting access. Of course, this was non-binding resolution, intended to serve as a guideline for nations.
In 2019 University of Birmingham ethicist and philosopher Merten Reglitz presented a comprehensive case for establishing free and uncensored internet access as a basic human right. Reglitz argued that in the 21st century internet access is not a luxury, but instead a vital way of obtaining information and exercising free speech. When internet access is withheld or blocked by a government it actively stifles a citizen's basic human rights.
“Without such access, many people lack a meaningful way to influence and hold accountable supranational rule-makers and institutions,” Reglitz said in late 2019. “These individuals simply don’t have a say in the making of the rules they must obey and which shape their life chances.”