Table Of Contents
Digital democracy|Digital freedom
76 new internet shutdowns recorded in 2023
Free internet continues to be a thorn in the side of oppressive states across the world. Accordingly, they haven’t let up in their efforts to shut down or impede their people’s access to the online world. Surfshark has been keeping tabs on initiatives to constrict the free use of the web amid political unrest for several years. So here is the round-up of internet restrictions in 2023.
2023 recap: the year that started with 40 restrictions already in place
Attempts to restrain freedom online don’t end when the year does, so 2023 began with 18 countries having 40 cases of internet restrictions already in place. Some initiatives have been going on for nearly 15 years: Oman, Iran, China, and Turkmenistan all imposed long-term social media restrictions in 2009 and haven’t lifted them since.
76 new instances of internet restrictions arose in 2023
To add to the ongoing internet restrictions, we counted 76 new cases of internet shutdowns in 2023. They were imposed in 22 countries.
The lion’s share of these was detected in Asia1: 8 Asian governments imposed 55 new restrictions, affecting 1.9 billion people — or ¼ of the global population. Africa took the 2nd spot in online shutdowns. 10 African countries were responsible for 17 new cases of internet restrictions, affecting 330 million people in total.
When it comes to specific countries in Asia, Iran and India secured the top spots regarding internet restrictions. Iran introduced 29 new restrictions, a sharp rise compared to 11 cases in 2022. India, on the other hand, imposed 11 new restrictions in 2023, a slight uptake from the 2022 figure of 10. Other Asian countries and territories grappling with restricted internet access included Pakistan (4 cases), Jammu & Kashmir (4), Yemen (3), Turkey (2 ), and Iraq (1).
In Africa, most internet freedom violations came from 4 countries: Senegal (5 cases), Ethiopia, Guinea, and Mauritania (2 cases each). The Senegalese government had imposed internet restrictions following the sentencing of an opposition leader. Measures included limiting access to social media platforms and an internet curfew during the summer². In Ethiopia, access to platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Telegram, and TikTok was restricted in response to protests against the government’s attempt to split the Ethiopian Orthodox Church³.
The most notable internet restrictions of 2023
- Iran imposed a record number of 29 cases of internet restrictions. They came as the government’s response to the “Bloody Friday” anniversary — anti-government protests that commemorated the 2022 Zahedan massacre⁴.
- Pakistan imposed 4 restrictions, all in response to political tensions over the opposition leader Imran Khan. For example, social media restrictions came into force in December⁵ during Khan’s online political gathering.
- Turkey imposed internet restrictions twice: in the aftermath of the deadly February earthquakes⁶ and during the presidential elections⁷.
- Suriname implemented internet restrictions for the first time⁸ as the government limited access to major social media platforms amidst protests over the rising cost of living.
- Jammu & Kashmir experienced a notable decline in internet restrictions, registering only 4 short-term internet shutdowns or restrictions to mobile network services over 2023. This was a significant reduction from the 42 instances recorded in 2022.
Response to protests: the leading cause of internet restrictions in 2023
Nearly two-thirds of internet restrictions in 2023 were related to protests, impacting 1.7 billion people across 8 countries.
Iran was the top country by internet restrictions due to protests: all 29 cases recorded in 2023 were implemented in response to anti-government protests. This resulted in significant hours-long disruptions in internet connectivity in Zahedan.
India came second in the number of internet restrictions due to protests, with 8 recorded instances in 2023. This includes the ongoing mobile data service suspension in specific districts of Manipur⁹.
Five countries implemented internet restrictions during elections: Chad, Gabon, Turkey, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. There were no cases of election-related internet restrictions in 2022. Looking ahead to 2024, 90 countries are set to hold elections during the year. An increase in election-related network restrictions is anticipated as some governments attempt to influence their electoral process¹⁰.
11 countries experienced restrictions due to other types of political turmoil. Social media was restricted recently in Guinea due to political tensions¹¹, and Pakistani netizens faced restrictions aimed at thwarting opposition leader Imran Khan⁵.
The most prevalent type of internet restrictions in 2023 were local network disruptions, with network connections harmed only in specific regions or cities. The most extreme form — a network shutdown blanketing the whole country or affecting the majority of the population — was imposed in 13 cases by 10 countries. This is a decrease of 30% from 19 cases in 2022.
Mauritania and Senegal both imposed country-wide disruptions twice in 2023, while Iran imposed two shutdowns that were nearly country-wide (affected a large proportion of the population).
A quarter of all internet restrictions targeted social media
Overall, 21 new instances of social media restrictions by 13 countries were recorded in 2023. In comparison, there were only 11 such cases in 8 countries in 2022. Out of analyzed (7) social media platforms and messaging apps, Telegram was blocked most frequently: 7 governments restricted it on 8 occasions in 2023. Facebook was a close second, as 6 countries blocked it on 8 separate instances. In terms of duration, TikTok and YouTube faced the most prolonged restrictions, averaging 203 and 123 days, respectively.
The number of new restrictions falls as the number of countries imposing them rises
Compared to 2022, 15% fewer new restrictions (76 vs. 89) were observed in 2023. However, more countries were imposing restrictions: 36 in 2023 vs. 32 in 2022. The overall number of people affected by such disruptions totaled 2.5 billion individuals. This marks an increase of 22% (one-fifth) compared to 2022, when 2.05 billion people were affected by newly introduced restrictions.
The total number of internet restrictions — including ongoing cases that started before 2023 — slightly increased in 2023 compared to 2022, with 116 cases versus 112. If we count such long-term internet shutdown cases as seen in China or the UAE, the internet disruptions affected 4.37 billion people in 2023. It’s a 4% increase over 2022 when the number was 4.2 billion.
While the total number of cases in 2023 closely mirrors that of 2022, there has been a notable increase in long-term restrictions that continued from year to year, with 40 cases recorded compared to 23 in 2022.
In terms of restrictions that were only imposed during the year in question, there has been a discernible decline in new cases in 2023. This decrease is primarily attributed to a significant drop in reported cases in Jammu & Kashmir — from 42 to 4.
If we exclude those cases, 2023 shows an overall increase in new internet restrictions, with 72 new cases compared to 47 in 2022. Iran was a major contributor to the number, totalling 29 new instances of internet restriction vs. 11 in 2022.
But if we exclude both Jammu & Kashmir and Iran, there is a slight net increase of 7 new restrictions in 2023. When factoring in the number of restrictions in 2020 and 2021 and following a sharp drop in 2022, the overall trend suggests that the growth of restrictions appears to be stabilizing in 2023.
55 ongoing instances of internet restrictions carried over to 2024
As 2023 came to a close, 55 cases were still ongoing at the moment of writing. 51 of these cases were restrictions on social media or messaging apps that were introduced by 24 countries and territories. Most ongoing social media and messaging app blocks were recorded in Asia and Africa, with 16 and 6 countries, respectively, enforcing these measures.
In Asia, social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube remain restricted in Pakistan amid tensions over the opposition leader Imran Khan. In Manipur, India, several districts have been facing mobile data restrictions since May 2023. The restrictions were lifted in most areas in December 2023 but persist in some border areas¹². Restrictions are being reimposed in 15-day intervals, impacting the daily lives and communication of residents⁹.
In Africa, Ethiopian restrictions on social media platforms have been in place since February³. Guinea introduced restrictions on social media messaging platforms in response to political tensions and anti-government protests in November, despite the criticism that it hindered emergency response to a fire at a fuel depot in December¹³.
The continuing importance of monitoring online censorship
Oppressive governments around the world continue to restrict access to information and social media to maintain their power. The trends show that new countries keep discovering internet shutdowns as tools to suppress popular protests or limit the spread of information during political unrest. Following these events and documenting cases of infringements on online freedom provides a clearer context of the hardships those societies have to face and reminds us of the great effort taken to drown out their voices.
Methodology and sources
Please refer to the Internet Shutdown Tracker’s methodology page¹⁴ for methodology, data sources, and data spreadsheet.For the complete research material behind this study, visit here.