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Internet shutdowns by governments have ‘proliferated at a truly alarming pace’

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A favorite tactic for stifling dissent in the 21st century

Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

The number of government-led internet shutdowns has exploded over the last decade as states seek to stifle dissent and protest by limiting citizens’ access to the web.

Nearly 850 intentional shutdowns have been recorded over the past 10 years by nonprofit Access Now’s Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP), and although the group acknowledges that data on incidents before 2016 is “patchy,” some 768 of these shutdowns took place in the last five years. There were 213 shutdowns in 2019 alone, with this figure ticking down to 155 in 2020 as the world adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic (which delayed elections and led to lockdowns that kept populations at home more often). And already in the first five months of 2021 there have been 50 shutdowns across 21 countries.

“Since we began tracking government-initiated internet shutdowns, their use has proliferated at a truly alarming pace,” Access Now’s Felicia Anthonio, campaigner and #KeepItOn lead, said in a new report on the issue in The Current, a publication of Google’s internet thinktank Jigsaw. “As governments across the globe learn this authoritarian tactic from each other, it has moved from the fringes to become a common method many authorities use to stifle opposition, quash free speech and muzzle expression.”

The first significant internet shutdown took place in Egypt in 2011, as a response to protests against then-president Hosni Mubarak. As a result, an estimated 93 percent of Egyptian networks were blocked for five days. Earlier internet shutdowns and slowdowns were carried out in Guinea in 2007 and in Iran in 2009, but Egypt’s was the first to affect internet connections across an entire country where more than a quarter of citizens had access.

Since then, shutdowns have spread across the world, most prominently in Asia and Africa. They’re most frequently deployed during elections or times of protest, with governments claiming shutdowns are needed to stem the spread of misinformation. In reality, though, as the report in The Current notes, the intention is to “prevent opposition candidates from connecting with voters to build support, restrict the ability of citizens to organize, and undermine the efforts of election observers to ensure the integrity of the vote.”

Speaking to The Verge, Marianne Díaz Hernández, a Venezuelan lawyer and #KeepItOn Fellow, says the rise in shutdowns is a response to the internet’s increasing utility for organizing protest. “As more and more people use the internet, and particularly social media, to document and denounce human rights violations, civil unrest and other events, some governments start seeing the internet as a threat that needs to be ‘controlled,’” she says.

In addition to the stifling of free speech and assembly, internet shutdowns have significant economic harms. In Myanmar, which has seen the longest-ever government-led internet shutdown in history as part of the recent coup, it’s estimated the economic loss has been equal to 2.5 percent of the country’s GDP — around $2.1 billion. The report in The Current notes that this “inflicted on the country approximately half the damage wrought by the Great Recession on the US economy in less than a third of the time.”

Combatting the issue seems difficult at a high level. Internet shutdowns have been condemned by various international organizations, including the G7 and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Special Rapporteurs, but as Access Now’s data shows, this doesn’t seem to have dinted their use. There have also been some legislative wins, as when the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court, ruled that a 2017 internet shutdown in Togo was illegal, but it also seems unlikely such actions will actually dissuade governments who feel shutdowns are necessary to hold power.

The best method to combat internet shutdowns seem technological. VPNs and proxy servers allow users to rout internet traffic through another country to avoid certain blocks, while mesh networking apps can connect directly from one device to another, providing basic messaging functionality (though no access to the wider internet). But access to such tools is not guaranteed: it depends on people knowing they can be used in the first place and downloading them in advance of a shutdown. At least the internet can be used to help get the word out.