Governments across the globe enforced more internet shutdowns last year than ever before, according to the latest report from Access Now. A record-breaking 187 incidences of interference across 35 countries were recorded in 2022.
Whilst complaining about slow Wi-Fi or lack of access to Instagram and Netflix might seem like a “first world problem,” access to the internet in the modern world has not only become a critical part of engaging in daily life but also of preserving democratic freedoms and human rights.
According to Access Now, governments around the world are increasingly using internet restrictions during political crises as a tool to limit free expression and hide human rights abuses.
So, how bad can losing access to the web really be, and is there any way to fight back?
The controversial question: Is access to the internet really a human right?
You might be rolling your eyes at the question, but it’s one that the United Nations has addressed.
In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a non-binding resolution that condemned “measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law.”
The resolution affirms that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice.”
As daily life becomes increasingly reliant on access to the net, the power wielded by controlling access to the internet becomes an increasingly powerful instrument of harm.
Internet shutdowns can cause millions of dollars in damage to a national economy by preventing people and companies from conducting any online business and disrupting online banking systems. In 2022, it is estimated that internet shutdowns cost the global economy $23.79 billion — a 323% increase from 2021.
They can disrupt healthcare by preventing people from accessing web-based healthcare or even something as basic as contacting emergency services.
At its core, shutdowns affect the processes of exchanging knowledge. When communication services are tampered with, people cannot organise protests, access information from the web, or relay information to the outside world.
Besides interfering with both democratic processes and daily life itself, internet shutdowns also function as a modern “canary in the coal mine.” A government choosing to shut down its nation’s access to the web often coincides with human rights abuses or other criminal activity perpetrated by those in power.
Internet shutdowns occur most frequently during mass demonstrations, as a means of suppression, or as a strategic manoeuvre during military operations and coups.
On the morning of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine in February 2022, most of Kharkiv woke up without any internet access. During Myanmar’s military coup the year before, the junta imposed increasing internet restrictions that culminated in a near total shutdown within two months.
Without access to the web, it’s more challenging to document and report the abuses taking place, allowing the governments that are enforcing the internet shutdowns to perpetrate these crimes with impunity and without resistance.
Oddly enough, internet shutdowns also go hand-in-hand with school exams in parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Governments concerned about students using the internet to cheat will shut down the whole grid for a few hours every day, for the whole of the country’s exam season.
These economies, and the lives of the citizens, come to a grinding halt every year, even though there is almost no evidence that the shutdowns prevent cheating. Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Syria are especially guilty of this crime.
Access Now, the organisation that released the report, advocates and campaigns to defend and extend the digital civil rights of people around the world, and their latest report displays some worrying trends.
Not only are the number of incidents and the number of countries where incidents occurred increasing, but the incidents themselves are also becoming longer. One two-year long outage, an extreme case, in a politically turbulent region of Ethiopia finally ended in November 2022 after a ceasefire, although some parts of the region remain disconnected.
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How does a government “shut down” the web?
Governments that utilise this tactic have a few options in how they accomplish their goal.
The most extreme, and the most obvious due to the sharp drop in online traffic, is a complete shutdown of internet access. This disrupts all traffic and plunges the whole of the affected area into a technological black hole.
The slightly more subtle, but still effective option, is to block access to certain sites or platforms, known as a “targeted” shutdown. This type of control predominantly affects social media websites and messaging platforms in order to curb the spread of information and dissent.
The last method, known as “throttling” is the most subtle and the hardest to track. This entails slowing internet speeds to a crawl, a technique that can make the web virtually unusable without the need for an outright shutdown.
Even for those who monitor internet traffic, the practice of throttling is hard to pinpoint, which allows governments to shrug off accountability.
The way that officials can trigger these shutdowns is surprisingly simple. All they have to do is ask.
Telecom companies in the parts of the world where these tactics are common have little power to refuse requests from the government without risking losing their licence.
The report from Access Now also demonstrates one alarming paradox: as governments increasingly rely on internet interference as a political tool, the number of internet shutdowns will likely decrease.
As a tool, a complete internet shutdown, one that disconnects an entire region from the web, is the equivalent of a blunt weapon; it’s a crude, but effective, method whose damaging consequences are immediately obvious to anyone who is looking.
Through methods like targeted shutdowns and throttling, government interference in online communications are becoming more subtle and sophisticated, and as a result, harder to spot and to track, an instrument of harm more equivalent to an odourless poison than to a blunt axe.
However, as government tools of oppression become more sophisticated, so must resistance.
Resistance: Can anything be done?
The good news is that there are some actions that can be taken to preserve one’s digital rights, but if tech bores you and you feel your digital rights are secure, you can skip to the end.
The bad news is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to counteract every type of internet shut down, but there are a variety of options.
One common and reliable way to circumvent targeted internet shutdowns or censorship, such as blocked platforms or sites, is to use a virtual private network (VPN), which allows users to connect to internet service outside of a country via a proxy server.
This quotidian solution, which is often used by foreigners travelling in China or even for something as mundane as accessing a different country’s Netflix library, is easy, cheap and effective, but it can only be used if overall network connectivity has been preserved.
In the case of total internet outage, connecting to satellite signals via a service like Starlink is one way of regaining internet access. This is rather complicated because it requires special technology to access and is costly, although it did prove useful at circumventing the internet shutdown enforced by Russia in Ukraine for some time during the war.
In the past, the United States government has considered attempting to utilise this technology to offer internet to Cubans when the Cuban government shut down the internet during protests in the summer of 2021, although this wasn’t practical for a series of logistic and political reasons.
We call on Cuba's leaders to reinstate – & maintain – access to internet & telecom services.
We are working with the private sector & Congress to identify ways to make the internet more accessible to the Cuban people.
— Brian A. Nichols (@WHAAsstSecty) July 21, 2021
Mesh networks offer a way of communicating during a total internet outage, although they can’t offer access to the wider internet. Because this technology is reliant on Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology to create a chain of users, it is geographically limited. This option can help protestors within a city organise, as it did during protests in Hong Kong, but it won’t allow people to video chat with relatives across the world.
There have been calls for local and international civil society organisations, technology developers, and companies to bring more awareness to these alternatives with a focus on preparedness.
Since some internet shutdowns are tied very predictably to scheduled events, especially elections and school exams, some of the damage could be minimised through preparedness, if a population had a greater understanding of and access to these types of back-up options.
For example, if a government with a history of internet suppression blocks social media sites before an election in an effort to suppress “misinformation,” a campaign to encourage people to download VPNs ahead of time could help counteract oppressive tactics and preserve the functioning of democratic systems.
Access Now is holding an election watch for 2023, as a number of countries with a history of weaponising internet shutdowns are holding elections this year. Although it is worth noting that the only hopeful data point from the 2022 report showed internet shutdowns during elections are decreasing.
How this will play out the coming year is, as of yet, unknown, but despite the many pessimistic trends, one can always hope that the mutually reinforcing powers of democratic ideals, technological advancements, and human resilience can turn the tide against unjust power and corruption.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: An interrupted satellite connection shows static on a TV screen. Featured Photo Credit: Zach Vessels.