How internet shutdowns infringe democracy and human rights

Anton P. | March 10, 2021

Internet shutdowns are incidents when the internet and even cellular services suddenly become inaccessible or unusable. We have witnessed unsettling numbers of deliberate blackouts initiated by governments or non-state actors in the past decade. Over time, internet shutdowns became tools for blocking incoming and outgoing information within a specific country or region. Activists label such blackouts as clear violations of human rights, frequently occurring alongside higher levels of repression. During internet shutdowns, people cannot contact their families, receive medical care, or organize peaceful demonstrations. The latter also relates to the conditions in which internet blackouts are the most frequent. Typically, government officials suppress the flow of information and expression during protests, elections, or other circumstances deemed threatening.

internet blackout

What is an internet shutdown?

An internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of internet-based services. Intentions behind such connectivity cut-offs are to digitally isolate particular groups of people from the rest of the world. Usually, government-mandated internet blackouts serve as a response from authorities in times of political unrest. Thus, experts associate state-ordered shutdowns to means for suppressing the natural flow of information.

For one, it prevents citizens from raising awareness of the situation globally. Additionally, it stops people from collaborating and coordinating their actions with other entities within the region. Officials typically claim that internet blackouts resolve national security threats and counteract the permanent loss of life. In cases of violent riots, the reasons for shutting down communication channels are somewhat justifiable. However, such countermeasures also halt peaceful opposition, a cornerstone of democratic societies. Experts have also noted that internet cut-offs can spark more violence and outrage amongst citizens.

Thus, internet shutdowns are more likely to resemble nation-wide punishments obstructing people’s rights. In times of crisis, temporarily limiting people’s freedom is not an unprecedented action. Nevertheless, state-mandated internet blackouts are far from tactical responses. They can be counterproductive and fuel more disruptions than witnessed initially.

Impact of internet shutdowns on society

The purpose of any internet shutdown is to silence citizens both within and outside the borders. Unfortunately, internet and mobile service blackouts affect all members of society, including children and business owners.

  • Students are unable to access virtual lessons or online material necessary for their education.
  • People requiring immediate medical attention cannot contact hospitals or other facilities. In times when healthcare heavily relies on internet services, disruptions can prevent hospitals from treating patients.
  • Citizens are unable to use services for paying their taxes.
  • Businesses cannot carry out their mundane operations nor serve their clients.

In addition to causing nation-wide distress, internet shutdowns are also incredibly expensive. Reports suggest that in 2019, internet blackouts cost the global economy over $8 billion. Brookings Institution also presented findings showing that $2.4 billion was the price tag of connectivity loss throughout 2015 and 2016. Despite its expensive and economically-draining nature, experts are yet to see a decline in the number of deliberate blackouts.

Notable internet shutdowns throughout the years

The KeepItOn report had demonstrated the high frequency and conditions under which governments impair internet connectivity. In 2016, nations had lost internet connections 75 times, while in 2018, the total count was 196. The overview also defined the two most vulnerable continents (Asia and Africa), and emphasized the governments’ refusal to take responsibility.

Over the selected time frame, the report highlighted internet shutdowns in Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Sudan, Mali, Russia, and many other regions. The following years did not help paint a more positive picture of the situation. More stories reported on connectivity losses, either nation-wide or more local. However, the main principles and excuses for internet shutdowns remained the same.

In 2019, the internet shutdown in Myanmar went into history as one of the world’s longest connectivity disruptions. In the states of Rakhine and Chin, the service suspension lasted for 19 months.

Additionally, experts say that internet shutdowns do not necessarily affect all internet services. Partial blackouts can target specific companies. In Uganda, the government ordered the block on social media and messaging apps right before its presidential election. In fact, internet restrictions throughout or before elections increased in recent years. Specialists relate such blackouts to attempts to control or rig the election outcomes. However, the official reasons behind such connectivity cut-offs typically associate with curbing misinformation and fake news.

India

The frequency of government-mandated shutdowns in India is higher than in any other country. The region also holds the unfortunate record for one of the longest internet blackouts: 213 days in Kashmir. The latter lasted from the 4th of August 2019 to the 4th of March 2020. The blackout came the day before the Indian government repealed the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir.

After scrapping the constitutional provision, the government sent thousands of troops to monitor the state. The region residents were unable to use internet-based and phone services and had to follow a strict curfew. As reported by a journalist living in Kashmir, the blackout traumatized people and isolated them from the rest of the world. Families could not contact their loved ones, and businesses suffered unprecedented losses of profit and clients. The journalist recalled going to a media center to get at least several minutes of internet connectivity.

In the last five years, the Indian government has shut down the internet over 400 times. Recently, the country faced strong opposition from society over the new agricultural reforms. The internet blackout came after multiple demonstrations across the country protesting the controversial farm laws. While the protests were mostly peaceful, reports of violence started after demonstrators drove tractors into the heart of the capital.

Iran

In November of 2019, the Iranian government mandated the most sophisticated internet shutdown in history. The blackout came after violent protests, all fighting the tremendous spike in the cost of fuel. During the month dubbed as “Bloody November,” the citizens witnessed the true capacity of an internet shutdown. The unleashed blackout lasted six days or longer in areas where protests continued.

Bear in mind that this was not the first time similar connectivity loss took place in Iran. However, the protests against increased gasoline prices unwittingly revealed the unsettling situation with Iran’s internet. The country has focused on building a local intranet for years. This idea relates to gradual internet fragmentation or splinternet, sparking the emergence of state-controlled digital environments. In turn, the power Iran has over connectivity is tremendous, and it simplifies the implementation of internet shutdowns. Specialists emphasize that the infrastructure in Iran could serve as an outline for other countries. Regimes interested in gaining more control over digital lives could continue the cyber revolution, balkanizing the global internet.

Belarus

The presidential election in Belarus caused massive public outrage. People took to the streets, fighting the allegedly rigged results. The response from the Belarusian authorities was not limited to police using flash grenades, rubber bullets, and physical force.

The government also decided to interfere with internet access nation-wide, blocking news outlets, social media, search engines, and independent media. However, authorities in Belarus refused to acknowledge the internet shutdown as their deliberate choice. Instead, the government claimed to have suffered an external cyber attack, crippling internet access as a result. Nevertheless, specialists have met such statements with skepticism due to lack of evidence. Additionally, people had reported receiving warnings about the potential loss of internet connectivity beforehand.

Fighting internet shutdowns and defending human rights

Internet shutdowns do not merely restrict the right of access to information and freedom of expression. These temporary barriers infringe other human rights, such as access to healthcare or other vital services. Thus, it disrupts daily lives on a higher level and can have drastic economic consequences.

Despite these nation-wide repercussions and global condemnation of such blackouts, governments continue to undermine internet access. Organizations worldwide attempt to document and verify such incidents, demonstrating the importance of the issue.

People must have the right to organize peaceful protests and express their opposition to particular government policies or decisions. Even after internet shutdowns end, citizens might be reluctant to share their stories. With the tight grip governments have over information flow overall, fears of prosecution or arrest persist. Thus, internet blackouts, government surveillance, and censorship are global issues requiring immediate attention.

Is there a way to circumvent internet shutdowns?

You can obviate attempts to control populations online in times of political unrest. However, once regions or countries end up in digital lockdowns, it might depend on the preparation citizens have done beforehand. Experts note that bypassing internet shutdowns is possible through Tor, proxies, encrypted DNS (in case of DNS blocking), and international SIM cards.

In Hong Kong, protestors reportedly used mesh networks to reclaim their right to communicate. Mesh networking technologies mean that the traditional internet connection is not necessary for communications to take place. Instead, it operates on a peer-to-peer Bluetooth connection. For instance, FireChat or Bridgefy apps can be integral during internet shutdowns. However, security experts have highlighted the potential dangers of mesh-based technologies. Entities with technical how-to can monitor such communications. While it might not be possible to listen in on the actual conversations, extracting metadata is more than feasible. Thus, authorities could potentially recognize the participants of such chats.

During the drastic internet blackout in Myanmar, people turned to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). These tools encrypt your traffic, prevent ISPs from learning your digital movements and conceal your IP address. They can be instrumental during internet shutdowns, especially when governments target specific digital services. By connecting to servers outside your country, you have a high chance of circumventing internet blocks. However, as witnessed in Myanmar, governments could take more drastic measures and block known VPN addresses. They could also disable internet access altogether without picking some particular services to block. In this case, you could not reach a VPN server in the first place This means that the effectiveness of a VPN depends on particular situations. Nevertheless, adding a VPN to your arsenal can greatly increase your chances of reclaiming internet access during blackouts.

Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.

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