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Governments keep shutting off the internet, even as more people rely on it

Internet shutdowns have become a prevalent way for governments to control dissent, but they are increasingly disruptive as people’s lives move online.

Governments keep shutting off the internet, even as more people rely on it
[Source images: Michael Dziedzic; Ankudi/iStock]
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Governments around the world continue to restrict or shut down internet access to stifle internal dissent, a form of censorship that was especially devastating during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report from Google’s Jigsaw research group.

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While the total number of shutdowns fell somewhat last year, the total duration of shutdowns rose 49% in 2020, according to the report, which draws on data from Access Now, a nonprofit that has been studying shutdowns since 2016.

During the pandemic, shutdowns disrupted people’s employment and schooling as virus restrictions prevented in-person meetings. But some shutdowns were even more costly. Recent extended shutdowns in Myanmar after a February military coup are estimated to have cost the country’s economy $2.1 billion—and kept people from learning about the coronavirus for months into the pandemic. And in Kashmir, people were unable to download contact tracing apps because of internet shutdowns, according to the report.

“Health professionals are finding it difficult to access critical information,” in countries where the internet is restricted, says Felicia Anthonio, lead of Access Now’s #KeepItOn anti-shutdown campaign. At least one hospital in Indonesia was forced to temporarily shut down after it was unable to access its IT systems during an apparent shutdown, according to a report cited in the Jigsaw study.

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Access Now’s data shows nearly 850 shutdowns over the past decade, including 768 in the past five years. “Now, there is rarely a day where at least one part of the world has not been cast into the dark,” according to the report.

Shutdowns are getting more devastating overall, says Dan Keyserling, Jigsaw’s chief operating officer. Because the internet is becoming more significant to more people’s lives, shutdowns can dramatically impact normal existence, even beyond the pandemic.

“I think in some ways the pandemic is sort of the most extreme example of a broader trend of people living more of their lives online, of more people coming online,” Keyserling says.

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A June report from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association emphasized that shutdowns can be a violation of international human rights law.

Countries generally shut down or restrict internet access during times of unrest, political turmoil, or elections, according to the Jigsaw report. In some cases, that means blocking websites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube where people share information. Cuba, for example, had a significant internet shutdown recently amid protests there, only a couple of years after internet access became more widespread in the country, says Marianne Díaz Hernández, a Venezuelan lawyer and fellow with Access Now’s #KeepItOn anti-shutdown project.

“These are the first events where people sort of have regular internet connectivity,” she says.

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Shutdowns can take a variety of forms, according to the Jigsaw report. Governments can simply have telecom providers turn off access, but they can also throttle speeds to unusably slow levels, which can be falsely attributed to technical problems amid already chaotic situations.

“It’s not always obvious, especially in the kind of immediate aftermath, what’s happening,” Keyserling says.

Other times, restrictive governments may try to simply block particular IP addresses or domain names. Complete blockades can be difficult to get around, although mesh networks where people share information wirelessly from device to device can be useful. More partial restrictions can sometimes be circumvented through virtual private networks or proxy servers, according to the report.

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Access Now works with people affected by shutdowns to help them find workarounds while they’re in place. The organization also collects stories from the affected, usually after the fact, to draw attention to the phenomenon, explains Díaz Hernández. The goal is also to illuminate how governments are becoming more sophisticated about restricting access.

“Our civil society must also become more innovative at identifying these innovations they are using, bring them to light, and hold them accountable for such acts,” she says.

About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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