As states attempt to suppress dissent and protest, they have increased the number of government-led internet shut downs over the past decade.
Access Nows Shutdown Tracker Optimizement Project (STOP) has recorded nearly 850 intentional shut downs over the last 10 years. Although the group admits that there is no data available on incidents prior to 2016, 768 of these shutdowns occurred in the last five year. In 2019, there were 213 shut downs. This number will drop to 155 in 2020, as the world adjusts to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first five months, there were 50 shutdowns in 21 countries.
It is now a popular method of communication.
We have been tracking government-initiated shutdowns of the internet since 2005. Their use has increased at an alarming rate, Access Nows Felicia Annonio, campaigner, and #KeepItOn leader, stated in a report in The Current, a publication by Google's internet thinktank Jigsaw. This authoritarian tactic has become an increasingly common tool for authorities to suppress opposition, silence speech, and limit expression.
Egypt's first major internet shut down was in response to protests against the then-president Hosni Muraak. An estimated 93% of Egyptian internet networks were shut down for five days. Although earlier internet slowdowns and shutdowns had been conducted in Iran in 2007 and Guinea in 2009 respectively, Egypt's was the first country to experience a complete internet blackout that affected all internet connections.
Shutdowns have been spreading around the globe, especially in Asia and Africa. Shutdowns are most commonly used during elections and times of protest. Governments claim that shutdowns are necessary to stop misinformation spreading. The Current report reveals that the intent is to stop opposition candidates connecting with voters in order to build support, limit the ability of citizens and organize, and to undermine efforts by election observers to ensure integrity of the vote.
Many governments view the internet as a threat and need to control it.
Marianne Daz Hernndez (a #KeepItOn Fellow and Venezuelan lawyer) said that the increase in shutdowns was due to the internet's growing utility for organizing protest. She says that governments are beginning to see the internet as a threat and need to be controlled as more people use it, especially social media, to report and denounce human rights violations, civil turmoil, and other events.
Internet shutdowns can cause significant economic harms, as well as the suppression of freedom speech and assembly. Myanmar has experienced the longest ever government-mandated internet shutdown. This was due to the recent coup. It has lost 2.5 percent of its GDP of $2.1 billion. The Current reports that the country suffered approximately half of the economic damage caused by the Great Recession to the US economy within a quarter of a century.
It seems that the highest level of government is unable to tackle this issue. Despite being condemned by several international organizations (including the G7 and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Special Rapporteurs), internet shutdowns don't seem to have stopped their use, as Access Nows data suggests. Some legislative victories have been achieved, such as the ruling by the Economic Community of West African States Community Court that a Togo 2017 internet shutdown was illegal. However, it seems unlikely that such actions will stop governments from deciding that shutdowns are essential to their power.
Technology is the best way to prevent internet shut downs. Proxy servers and VPNs allow users to route internet traffic through another country in order to avoid blocking. Mesh networking apps connect from one device to another to provide basic messaging functionality, but no access to the wider web. Access to these tools is not guaranteed. It depends on users knowing that they are available and downloading them before a shutdown. The internet is a good way to spread the word.