Freedom House has been recording a pattern of decrease in global internet freedom as more governments decide to throttle online dissent.
While governments apply censorship as a tool to suffocate disagreement, internet shutdown gives a more immediate effect. In countries across Africa, internet shutdowns are common during elections. This is done to make sure social media doesn’t have an impact on the polls.
As people get accustomed to such shutdowns, authoritarian government enjoy their powers, while proactive users try to find ways to evade censorship and to get free access to the internet.
What Exactly Is Internet Shutdown?
Internet shutdown is exactly how it sounds – it’s when the internet is disrupted. While it’s generally brought on by a government, there can be other forces behind it as well.
Internet shutdowns or blackouts can fall in two broad categories:
Total shutdown – This means the internet is no longer working. All internet services are completely blocked including broadband carriers and mobile data services. This block is generally region or countrywide and people are unable to go online on any device.
Partial shutdown – In a partial shutdown, the government restricts your access to certain apps or websites. This is generally done to stop people from sharing information with others.
While governments are mostly responsible for internet shutdowns, some downtime can be due to different reasons. For example, in 2011, an elderly woman was digging for copper and accidentally sliced off a large part of a fiber optic cable. This caused a huge internet blackout that engulfed parts of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.
And then a year later, there was a big internet outage due to Hurricane Sandy. There have been several such cases, resulting in internet shutdowns, showing that natural calamities and human stupidity can also be a big reason for an online blackout.
Internet Outages Aren’t New
A 2016 study identified over 600 occasions within a span of 17 years where almost 100 governments deliberately changed the routine functioning of the internet. There was only one incident in 1995 and four in 1996. But the number shot up to 111 in 2010.
As internet freedom steadily declined over the past few years, internet shutdowns became a common trend and especially gained attention in 2011 during the uprising in Egypt. It was when the government shut down the internet supply for about a week. This was done to disrupt communication among protestors.
Since then, internet shutdowns have actively been used as tools to curb public unrest against the government.
The most prominent cases of online blackouts from all over the world have happened due to political pressures. In 2005, Nepal shut down its internet when King Gyanendra assumed the throne.
The world soon saw another wave of internet blackouts when the Arab Spring took place. It was a series of revolutions that happened in North Africa and the Middle East in the period of 2010-2011. This began an era of protest cultures all over the world.
The trend of shutting off the internet to dampen the protests soon caught up with the rest of the world. And now these blackouts weren’t restricted only to cases of large scale violence or political opposition. Shutdowns could take place to help conduct administrative exams and to regulate the movement of illegal content.
The ShutDown Tracker Optimization Project or STOP reported in 2017 that in the last two years, as many as 30 countries saw online blackouts with the numbers being highest in India and Pakistan.
According to the civil society organization Access Now, India saw 154 shutdowns from January 2016 to May 2018. That is a large number of shutdowns, leaving the netizens unable to connect to the internet freely.
The present year is no exception – 2019 has started with shutdowns in various countries such as Bangladesh, Sudan, Gabon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo due to elections and political unrest.
The Excuses Given by Governments
The authorities generally don’t disclose why they implemented a shutdown and it’s often left to people to guess the reasons. And even when reasons are given, they are often about national security and preserving public order.
Governments often use threats (real or perceived) to justify internet blackouts.
For example, in 2012, mobile telecommunication services in some regions in Pakistan were suspended owing to a risk of terrorist activity during a religious holiday. The authorities didn’t specify a time or region but mentioned that they will blackout telecom due to safety reasons.
In another incident, Turkey banned some social media websites and chat apps in 2015 when the opposition leaders were arrested. There was a suspicion of terrorist plans of bombing a rally and the internet services were suspended saying that the circulation of graphic images will create a sense of panic among people.
Ironically, when the Turkish army planned a coup in 2016, President Erdogan used the internet to broadcast a video call to ask support from his people to come to the streets to help him uphold his regime.
Impact of Shutdowns on Economy and Human Rights
Internet shutdowns have a huge economic impact because businesses suffer immensely when they cannot communicate. According to Brookings, a big think tank, internet shutdowns all over the world cost $2.4 billion in 2015-2016.
And these are just the minimum estimates. These days, everything from a small store to a big enterprise is online. And the impact of such shutdowns is more on developing economies as they struggle to get financial stability. As more people from around the world join the digital revolution, internet shutdowns impact the world economy in a more drastic way.
Human rights impact
Governments over the world are responsible to see that their citizens enjoy these rights whether they are in offline or online context.
Practically speaking, people depend on the internet in general and social media in specific to stay in touch with their family and friends or to voice their opinions. Given the present online scenario, internet shutdowns – total shutdowns in particular – should be thought of as a human rights violation.
What to Do If There’s a Partial Shutdown
If your government is targeting some specific websites and apps, such as Twitter, you can use simple ways to get past this block.
When Twitter was blocked in Turkey, people started using a mirror that was launched using Google DNS. All they did was reroute the traffic through another IP, and thus escaped the Turkish censorship.
There can be more sophisticated censorships as well. And they can be dodged by using Tor or VPN. As long as there is an internet connection, motivated users will find some way to get their voice heard around the world.
Make sure you have apps and tools to keep you secure and private
Extensions like HTTPS Everywhere will make sure your browsing is secure on the websites you visit. It’s also important to have secure browsers such as Tor. While Chrome is an all-purpose browser, it doesn’t provide many security features. If you don’t want to be monitored by the government, it’s best to use Tor.
A VPN is another (and better) alternative. Using a VPN will make sure your data cannot be read by the government. A VPN will also let you bypass the restrictions set by the government. During the partial shutdown, some websites will be banned. But when you use a reliable VPN such as Surfshark, you’ll be able to visit those sites without any issues.
Read more about the unblocking websites here.
What to Do If There’s a Total Shutdown
In some cases, the government takes drastic steps and can block out central telecom systems. This could either cut off all connection or throttle it to an extent that it’s not usable at all. In cases like these, you’ll need an entirely new network.
You’ll need a mesh network.
Mesh networks are rather new in the field of technology and haven’t been deployed in cases of actual conflict. However, there are projects such as Commotion that are actively promoting this new and necessary technology.
With this technology, you’ll be able to set up a network. While you won’t be able to access Google or Facebook, you can still voice your opinions. You can set up a chat room and spread the message there. And this can be done even if all the internet is shut down in your area.
What are mesh networks?
We access the internet through our ISP, which is generally through broadband. This is basically a cable that connects your ISP to the main internet exchanges. So basically, your ISP is the gatekeeper that controls the entry point to the internet.
Mesh networks are different. They connect devices to each other directly, without the need for a middleman. These networks allow the connections to be reconfigured automatically, depending on the proximity and the availability of storage and bandwidth.
They are decentralized in nature, and thus shutting them down is extremely difficult. The only way to shut down a mesh network is by shutting down each node, which is almost impossible. This makes mesh networks more robust and they’re more resistant to shutdowns.
Practical implementation of a mesh network
A drill was staged in 2014 in Manhattan to mimic an internet outage. The idea was to see whether a communication network run mainly on mobile devices can be set up quickly. While building a mesh was a slow process, as the network grew, it became stable.
This experiment proved that even if the government does shut down the internet, they cannot break the communication channels among people.
However, mesh networks need to go a long way before they can be adopted widely. If we read the warning label by Commotion, the wireless internet project, it says that their network cannot hide your identity or prevent monitoring.
So while a mesh can help you connect with your peers when the internet is down, it doesn’t offer anonymity and your messages can be read and recognized by others.
This doesn’t make meshes useless. For example, if there’s a hurricane and you have an internet shutdown, you can use a mesh network to let everyone know that you’re safe.
But if it’s a government-planned shutdown and you want to voice your opinion, a mesh network might not be very helpful as it can be monitored. However, meshes are still evolving and we might see a more secure mesh in the future.
Bottom Line: Why Shutdowns Need to Be Stopped
In the case of political unrest, there must be a dialogue between the government and its citizens. It’s important for governments to understand that internet shutdowns also slow down the economy and have a negative impact on many sectors of society.
Authorities need to look for alternative ways to handle the issue at hand instead of resorting to a shutdown policy.
By improving transparency in government procedures, the authorities can bring civil unrest to a halt. There should also be a cost-benefit analysis to see how the online blackouts affect the economy.
Also, ISPs should challenge any illegal shutdown requests by the government. By upholding the rule of law, these companies can provide freedom of expression to the citizens and help the economy from suffering huge losses.
While internet shutdowns are a scary concept, the good thing is that the technology to combat them is on its way. For now, if there’s a blackout and you want to spread a message, it’s possible.
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