Governments throughout the world are increasingly using Internet shutdowns as a tool to silence dissent, restrict freedom of speech, and keep a population from communicating with the rest of the world.
According to the Wall Street Journal, parts or all of the Internet were turned off at least 213 times in 33 countries last year. This includes Internet curfews, restricted access to social media, and intentionally slow speeds that prevent users from sharing photos.
India tops the charts for shutdowns, having closed its Internet more than 130 times in 2018. Pakistan shuttered its Internet 12 times that year, followed by Yemen and Iraq with 7 shutdowns, Ethiopia with 6 shutdowns, and DR Congo with 3 shutdowns.
“India is a swing state in the future of democratic governance of the Internet,” warns researcher Adrian Shahbaz. “When a massive democracy like India resorts to such a blunt tool, it normalizes the approach of shutting down the Internet.”
The first intentional nationwide blackout occurred in January 2011, when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak severed all Internet connections and cellphone services in the face of mounting political unrest regarding the Arab Spring. Almost immediately, 80 million people were offline.
In 2018, Russia switched off its Internet for two weeks to stymie protests regarding a new deal on Ingushetia’s border with Chechnya. The goal was to prevent activists from using WhatsApp to organize demonstrations. Similar steps have been taken by governments in Chad, Sudan, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Congo, Turkey, and others.
Russia is also working on plans to construct a parallel Internet that would allow it to stay online domestically if cut off from the rest of the world. President Vladimir Putin says the parallel Internet (which would be controlled by Moscow) is a necessary precaution against potential cyberattacks.
In 2019, Ethiopia blocked its Internet from June 22nd to July 2nd following a failed coup attempt against Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. That same month, Mauritania silenced its Internet minutes before the results of a national election were announced.
For years, authorities in Kazakstan have blacked out the Internet each time opposition leader Mukhtar Ablyazov attempts to use Facebook Live.
Last summer, Myanmar switched off the Internet in nine townships in order to prevent people from using social media to “coordinate illegal activities.” Nearly 250 days later, the Internet is still off.
“It’s like we suddenly went blind,” says San Naing, a 40-year-old rice farmer who had recently started using the Internet to improve his business.
To shut down its Internet, all a government has to do is politely demand that its ISPs turn off all outside connections.
ISPs depend on government licenses and contracts to do business and therefore have no leverage when asked to restrict access, intercept messages, pinpoint user locations, block apps and websites, or shut down entire networks.
The UN has no global agreement protecting Internet freedoms.
In most cases, ISPs are obligated to obey the government and the government has the power to turn off the Internet during an emergency.
“We’re often restricted by law to disclose the details or acknowledge any requests received,” admits Laura Okkonen of UK-based Vodafone Group PLC. “We have, as a company, tried to be as transparent as legally possible.”
Author’s Note: If a country is willing to cut off communication for any reason, it does not support free speech. The hackers will eventually find a way around Internet shutdowns and governments may lose this control. We have seen in the past, totalitarian societies (especially socialist ones) tend to develop a vast black market, that, if unchecked, can grow to be powerful.