As the number of COVID-19 cases rises, people in areas of India, Myanmar, Bangladesh still live in the communications blackout, whereas Ethiopia has only recently lifted the ban. The highest numbers of internet shutdowns throughout the year were recorded in India (121), Venezuela (12), Yemen (11), Iraq (8), and Algeria (6).
The internet disruption or social media shutdowns have become knee-jerk responses to protests or civil unrest, especially surrounding major political shifts such as elections or nullifications of the laws.
The number of deliberate blackouts almost doubled during the last couple of years. However, identifying patterns of how these shutdowns were implemented hasn’t become easier. “It is clear that quite often, countries try a variety of technical measures to achieve complete or partial internet blackouts,” says Naomi Hodges, Cybersecurity advisor at Surfshark.
“Quite often, the use of sophisticated technological tools is not necessary as political leaders control major internet service providers (ISPs). When the authorities control internet filtering, they can employ any measures, and civil society won’t be able to detect what’s behind the firewall,” adds Hodges.
“Identifying shutdown patterns and trends can be challenging because they are driven by stochastic geopolitical events. Mechanisms used to filter online platforms or to shut down internet connectivity vary from country to country. Often online censorship will mirror the country’s offline media regulation trends. For example, if a country monitors and censors radio and TV as they are broadcast, it is more likely that they will use ephemeral, or short-term, shutdowns on social media blackouts like those which are frequently reported in Venezuela,” says Alp Toker, Executive Director at internet freedom monitor NetBlocks.
Among the most common content filtering techniques are DNS poisoning, IP blocking, and Deep Packet Inspection (DPI).
- IP blocking. IP-based blocking places specific barriers in the network and helps to create so-called firewalls that block all traffic to a particular IP address. For instance, seeking to prevent people from accessing certain social media platforms such as Twitter, authorities block access to IP addresses of its servers. IP-based blocking requires the blocking party (such as the user’s ISP) to participate in information exchange between the end-user and content providers.
- DNS poisoning. DNS-based poisoning is less costly because it does not require to filter all network traffic. This content blocking type focuses on examining and controlling DNS queries. When a user tries to connect to a particular website, the computer contacts its DNS servers so it could access a website’s IP address. The server returns incorrect information, making the blocked site inaccessible.
- Deep Packet Inspection (DPI). If a user types a content-specific keyword such as, for instance, politically sensitive information, the search might fail as the packets associated with the search are blocked. This content blocking measure is very costly, as all queries must be evaluated against blocking rules.
- HTTP-based blocking. If a user tries to connect to a specific URL address that contains sensitive keywords, the search might fail because the firewall automatically blocks any content-specific queries.
“Generally, DPI and IP blocking are used in a combination. These tend to be implemented at nation scale although large countries such as India do filter regionally,” explains Alp Toker.
Although India has witnessed the highest numbers of severe internet shutdowns, there have not been nationwide blackouts. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government focuses on regional shutdowns seeking to control public opinion over political decisions.
For instance, the Kashmir Valley was put under an internet shutdown since August 4, 2019, for the 180th time. The blackout was imposed just before the annulment of Jammu and Kashmir’s special political status.
Under Indian laws, the government can order internet providers to shut down services or block certain content. In 2015, the ISPs were directed by the government to block 857 websites based on restricting access to pornographic content. If individual operators are legally compelled to implement the shutdown, they must switch off the access.
“More often than not, we have seen at NetBlocks that ISPs are involved, and are compelled by authorities to implement the shutdown, rather than by means of a real-world killswitch on a leader’s desk,” says Alp Toker.
A recently conducted study confirms that ISPs in India use DNS and HTTP filtering techniques for online censorship. However, complete shutdowns might be implemented through any number of means, varying in technical complexity, and depending on the government’s eagerness to control all getaways, as well as block VPNs that help to circumvent the restrictions.
Berhan Taye, the Senior Policy Analyst at advocacy group dedicated to an open and free internet Access Now, adds, “In India, the government usually shuts down mobile data and/or broadband or fixed-line connections by giving orders to internet service providers to comply. While there were a few incidents of throttling, most network disruptions in India are either complete blackouts or specifically target mobile data or fixed-line connections.”
Under the Venezuelan law, broadcasters are forced to air government-approved content while prohibiting pornography, violent content, and advertising since 2010. A few years afterward, the authorities extended their power with a “state of emergency,” giving the government an ability to filter the internet and online content.
In May 2019, former Venezuela’s leader Nicolás Maduro announced plans for a sovereign internet. Currently, he is seeking to nationalize more of the country’s telecommunications infrastructure. The internet shutdowns and filtering are being used in trying to target Venezuelans who support interim president, Juan Guaidó.
In addition to long-running online and offline media censorship, having a tight grip over the internet and broadcast media allows Venezuela’s government to implement internet or social media blackouts that last from a couple of minutes to hours. ISPs must comply and implement an outage within 24 hours or face sanctions that can include the loss of their concessions.
Berhan Taye adds, “In Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro’s government ordered the state-owned CANTV and dominant internet service provider to block social media and streaming services to prevent people from listening to blocked access to Juan Guaidó’s speeches. The shutdown targeted opposition party activities in the country. Full access to these platforms was restored immediately after the activities ended. Although this tactic of targeting specific platforms for specific speaking events is new in Venezuela, other countries like Kazakhstan had engaged in this type of censorship before.”
A number of media websites were found to be blocked by means of DNS poisoning. NetBlocks tests also showed that in some instances other types of online censorship were used, such as server name identification (SNI) blocking, controlling connections to the affected social media platforms.
Just like in India and Venezuela, censorship in Iraq is done by the IP-based blocking, DNS poisoning, and keyword search interference. On top of the ongoing internet filtering, implementation of the complete internet shutdown in a country or social media dysfunction is relatively easy. The government owns the majority of the country’s communications network and can order ISPs to shut down their systems.
“In Iraq, we see the full range of shutdown mechanisms applied, variously affecting all networks, sometimes including or excluding cellular networks, and occasionally applying to certain cities or even just Baghdad when Green Zone tensions arise,” explains Alp Toker.
For instance, during last year’s social media blackout that lasted for 50 days, all services have been intentionally restricted by leading Iraqi network operators, including Earthlink, Asiacell, and Zain.
Berhan Taye tells that “The government of Iraq, in an attempt to stop anti-corruption protests in the country, initially blocked access to social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, and other social and messaging apps, on multiple occasions before introducing a near-blackout of the internet.”
“The shutdown happened amidst reports of security agents’ brutality against protesters resulting in the killing of 100 people and injuring over 800 protesters, according to media reports. In Iraq, the government slowed down the bandwidth, making it difficult, if not impossible, to surf the net or social media platforms,” adds Taye.
Since the introduction of the first dial-up connections in 1996, the authorities of Yemen have been filtering content, including pornography, news, and political opposition groups. Yemeni social media is also carefully monitored, albeit using low-tech methods.
YemenNet, the ISP controlled by Houthi forces, owns the vast majority shares of the internet. In 2018, the UAE and Saudi Arabia sought to build another ISP, AdenNet, and break the Houthi monopoly. Despite ample investment, coverage remains limited, and most Yemenis continue to rely on YemenNet. Having a tight grip over the internet infrastructure allows the government to shut down the internet easily.
The current list of blocked sites in Algeria is among the most extensive NetBlocks has recorded globally. Moreover, low internet affordability keeps most of the population offline.
Algeria tends to resort to cellular network restrictions, but last year NetBlocks found that YouTube had been blocked nationally for several hours to prevent the sharing of a political video.
“Social media sites are restricted at national scale in Algeria, although this is rare and generally tied with major political turning points – or school exams, where the government believes it will prevent cheating. Overall, occurrences of internet shutdowns have decreased since Bouteflika resigned, but data shows that they remain a human rights issue to be reckoned with,” says Alp.
Websites Maghreb Emergent and Radio M, which are critical of the regime, were blocked in April 2020.
The rapid increase of internet shutdowns shows that countries are learning from one another to silence criticism by cutting off access to information. While the world pursues decentralized and autonomous networks, countries like Venezuela and Iraq are going backwards to the sovereign internet.
The countries analyzed are among the most notorious adversaries of internet freedom. Having a tight grip over local ISPs allows them to cut internet access without using high-tech methods. Operators in India, Iraq, Venezuela, and Yemen must switch off access to the internet if legally compelled.
“Most internet service providers working in these countries are forced to comply. Governments tend to justify these shutdowns by claiming they are necessary to restore public order or national security, prevent the spread of fake news or cheating in exams, but in reality, shutdowns are usually ordered to quell protest or gag citizens,” adds Taye.
Internet blackouts are usually implemented in addition to long-running online and offline media censorship. All analyzed countries use online filtering to control the information, but the extent of internet censorship varies from country-to-country. In most instances , deep-packet inspection and IP blocking were used in a combination, which is less technically challenging when there are only a few major telecommunications providers in a country.
The analysis shows that governments justify censorship as necessary measures to fight fake news or hate speech:
- Internet shutdowns in Venezuela are brief and sporadic. They are used to prevent dialogue regarding the political crisis, and cut support for the interim president, Juan Guaidó.
- Authorities in India and Iraq focus on long-lasting regional shutdowns or throttling as a means to control mounting protests against failing political leaders
- Internet blackouts are relatively rare in Algeria and Yemen, and are usually tied with major political shifts.
It remains challenging to collect technical evidence about national internet firewalls: “Total internet shutdowns can be implemented through any number of means, varying in technical complexity. This may involve pulling the plug at a telco, as happened in the early 2019 sub-Saharan Africa shutdowns, all the way through to complex national filtering mechanisms, as seen in Iran or China, which are implemented at internet exchange points, where contact is made with the outside world,” says Alp Toker.