Twenty-one countries have shut down the internet at least fifty times this calendar year by authoritarian governments. The problem will only get worse. They are increasingly brazen in limiting digital freedoms as they try to control dissent, especially in countries like Venezuela and Cuba that are facing elections.
It is as simple as flipping a switch to shut down the internet. This was the approach Hosni Mubaraks Egypt used in 2011. Ten years later, Myanmar's daily shutdowns continued for months, denying hundreds of thousands of people access to the internet and shrinking its GDP by 2.5 percent. In Sudan, internet access is being disrupted by a military coup.
However, most governments are more complex.
As it did during the Green Movement in 2009, the Iranian government was one of the first to block websites. Other countries, such as Tunisia, restricted access to certain websites amid protests calling for greater accountability. In an increasing number of cases, governments are using their control over internet service provider to throttle or slow down certain domains to unusable speeds. Russia recently shut down Twitter because it refused to remove content that was offensive about Alexei Navalny, an opposition figure.
There are many reasons why governments restrict internet access. Officials frequently cite national security and fear of violence during demonstrations. However, as more people are able to access the internet, it is a serious threat to their safety, freedom, and well-being.
The internet's expansion as a global, open network of networks has been a blessing to freedom. It provides new ways for people to find information and allows them to organize. As more of our lives move online, there is growing opposition from surprising many governments to a truly open global internet.
Clement Voule, UN Special Rapporteur on Deliberate Shutdowns, recently stated that the problem is getting worse and more common. Internet shutdowns are becoming a primary tool for governments to suppress dissent and control their population without drawing the ire from the international community.
Internet shutdowns have a far greater impact than restricting communication. They immobilize economies, stop commerce and trade, prevent people from going to school and threaten lives. As covert blocking techniques such as throttling become more common, it has become harder to detect shutdowns. It is becoming more difficult to discern what is happening when a government restricts access for its citizens. It is impossible to condemn something you cannot see.
It is crucial to document even partial internet shut downs in order to address this problem globally. The international community should know that no government should be allowed to shut down the internet. Jigsaw has teamed up with top researchers from Access Now, Censored planet, Open Observatory of Network Interference, (OONI), and other organizations to share information, increase understanding, and reduce the negative effects of internet shutdowns.
There are many resources that can help reduce the effects of internet shut downs. There are many options to connect to the internet during shut downs, including mesh networks, virtual private network (VPNs), shared proxy servers, and virtual mesh networks. Domain-level throttle can be made more complicated by the implementation of internet-wide standards.
Technology is just one component of the solution. To prevent future shutdowns, political action is required. This will increase the cost of such actions in the eyes international community.
The #KeepItOn campaign, which consists of over 240 organizations representing 105 countries, is a grassroots effort to raise awareness about internet shutdowns. It provides technical support and advocacy as well as legal intervention to prevent future ones.
Democratic governments should also unite in action.
The world's most technologically advanced democracies should make internet shutdowns a priority in their multilateral coordination on technology issues. They could do this by creating groups like the T-12 and the Quad. The United States and other states with similar interests could use the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to build on the work done by the Online Freedom Coalition (a group of thirty-five democracies dedicated to online freedom), to increase funding efforts to understand and respond to the threat and to develop technical and policy solutions. They could coordinate condemnation to accompany future shutdowns, and set out red lines for triggering sanctions against countries that violate their international human rights laws.
Democracies must rally for an open and free internet, despite the difficulties. Only then can the promise of an internet universally accessible be realized.