Around the world, regional or complete internet blackouts are becoming an increasingly common tool to suppress protests and dissent. Here’s how they work and why you should care.
Soon after Myanmar's military junta seized power on February 1, it blocked access to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. Then it moved on to a near-total internet shutdown on the night of February 15 as citizens continued to gather in anti-coup protests and demonstrations across the country.
Governments are increasingly resorting to internet shutdowns in times of crisis. In 2020 alone, there were 93 major shutdowns in 21 countries, affecting over 260 million people. They have been justified in the name of national security, public safety, quelling dissent, curbing the spread of misinformation during elections or other major events, and even preventing cheating in national exams.
So what exactly are ‘internet shutdowns’ and how do they work?
What is an internet shutdown?
Also known as blackouts or kill switches, internet shutdowns are when an entity, like a government or non-state actor, intentionally disrupts access to the internet or certain apps, in order to control the flow of information in a country or region.
Specifically, AccessNow, an international NGO that focuses on digital rights, defines an internet shutdown as “an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.”
A shutdown can take the form of blocking, when certain websites or apps are inaccessible; or full blackout, when internet-based applications, platforms, and pages are inaccessible.
A related term, throttling, refers to the intentional slowing down of network connections. It can affect the entire network, or be used to target specific apps, websites, and IP addresses.
So, is there an “off” button for the internet?
No. What governments do is order internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict network connectivity or block certain websites or apps. ISPs may comply with government orders out of fear of retribution of legal action.
For instance, in 2019, the Zimbabwean government ordered the largest telecommunications company in the country to shut down all internet services. The Chairman wrote on Facebook, in a message inaccessible to most in the country, that they had to comply or management would face “immediate imprisonment”.
Rights organisations encourage ISPs to push back against “unjustified internet shutdowns” to avoid complicity in human rights abuses.
In cases where the government controls the internet infrastructure, in whole or in part, it can simply restrict access on its own, without having to go through another party.
Can people bypass the shutdowns?
Yes, to a point. In some cases, getting a virtual private network (VPN) can allow users to securely connect to the internet and access banned or blocked web pages and apps. Many users in Myanmar are currently turning to VPNs or using international SIM cards to access blocked sites and communications services during the blackouts.
Since governments can limit access at the server level, meaning that it can control all traffic coming in and out at the hardware level, they can make it so that VPNs are not allowed through as well. Most countries don’t do this, but there have been efforts to block, limit, and/or ban VPNs in places like Kashmir, Russia, and China.
Is it legal?
It’s legal in many countries, but the UN has condemned the practice.
Several countries have laws in place that allow the government to shut down the internet or take over telecommunications networks for reasons of national security or public safety. For instance, the “Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules” in India allow the government to suspend internet and telecommunications services. India is ranked first in the world for its internet closures, particularly in Kashmir, where the practice has been called a “digital apartheid”.
In 2016, the UN adopted a landmark resolution that condemned “measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt filt access to or dissemination of information online” as violations of international human rights law.
Why is this important?
Digital access and the internet are human rights issues. In addition to limiting the right to freedom of expression, assembly, and privacy, disruptions can create cover for state violence and human rights abuses.
Broad measures like internet shutdowns in the name of security and protection are used to suppress dissent and smother freedom of expression. They hinder journalists from doing their jobs. They also have many economic, political, and social costs: ordinary citizens are left unable to reach their loved ones or perform everyday tasks like paying bills and taxes, accessing healthcare, sending money to family, or moving around. Citizens are also prevented from running or buying from online businesses.
In 2020 alone, the shutdowns resulted in a $4.01 billion loss globally.