When Governments Turn the Internet Off

In democracies and authoritarian nations alike, governments have come to rely on an ability to cut off internet access to the public.

A digital landscape shows dysfunctional web browser windows and 404 errors, with a pair of scissors cutting a cable in the foreground.
Mariano Pascual

Throughout the 20th century, governments around the world used mass media as a mechanism of control over public sentiment. It’s therefore no surprise that they have sought in recent decades to censor and manipulate the internet for their own purposes, often with willing assistance from tech companies and telecom providers.

By the late 1990s, as much of the world entered the digital age, the use of filtering tools to block websites and limit search functions was becoming common. Saudi Arabia waited to offer its citizens access to the World Wide Web until it had the technology in place to ensure that people within its borders couldn’t find “inappropriate information,” such as pornography or criticism of its government. China built and fortified its “Great Firewall/Golden Shield” with internet traffic-filtering tools provided by Cisco. Other countries, from Tunisia to Sweden and Malaysia to Iran, also employ various methods to control access to a range of information.

Then there is the extreme matter of cutting off internet access entirely — a brute course of repressive action by any measure, which Human Rights Watch has characterized as “collective punishment.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in early 2020, the internet’s importance to daily life only grew, particularly as lockdown orders followed and the citizens of most countries were encouraged to stay at home. Paradoxically, against this backdrop, government-ordered internet shutdowns became increasingly frequent. 

Access Now’s #KeepItOn campaign documented a whopping 155 incidents in 2020, during which 29 governments — Yemen, Jordan, Togo, and Venezuela among them — flipped the kill switch. India topped the list with a staggering 109 shutdowns, most of which impacted the region of Jammu and Kashmir. The most common reason given for the shutdowns in India was “precautionary measure.”

Shutting down internet access can have extraordinary consequences, affecting not just freedom of expression but the economy, public health, and access to crucial information, goods, and services, among many other things, leaving ordinary people in despair.

An Iranian citizen whom I will call Mehdi experienced this firsthand in Tehran in 2019, when Iranian authorities cut off access to the internet for a week. He described the experience as “utterly traumatizing,” likening it to being “thrown into an abyss.” 

“The shutdown literally put on pause every aspect of life,” Mehdi said.

Despite this, in democracies and authoritarian nations alike, governments have come to rely on an ability to cut off access to the internet in the midst of crisis, on the grounds that doing so is necessary to curb the spread of misinformation, to ensure public safety, or even to stop students from cheating on national exams.

A brief history

Internet shutdowns are hardly a new phenomenon. Although other nations had partially blocked internet access beginning in the 1990s, the first country to order a full-scale internet shutdown was, by most reports, the small island nation of Maldives.

In 2004, after authorities arrested writers of an email newsletter, demonstrations broke out in the capital of Malé, with protestors calling for the release of political prisoners, as well as the president’s resignation. In response, the government cut off access to the internet, severing digital connections with the outside world. Reporters Without Borders condemned the move, calling it “unprecedented.” 

In subsequent years, several countries followed suit, customarily shutting down access during periods of civil unrest. Nepal declared a media blackout during a 2005 coup attempt, restricting the press and shutting down the country’s telecommunications networks — an episode that had lasting negative repercussions for the country’s economy and democratic norms. And in 2007, Myanmar’s military government responded to demonstrations by first blocking access to websites that were being used to publish information about the ongoing protests, and later, after discovering that citizens had found ways around the bans, by blocking the internet entirely.

“The marches, organized at a lightning pace by volunteers using Facebook, show the increasing power and reach of a social-networking site originally designed to help college students find drinking buddies,” wrote Sarah Lai Stirland for Wired at the time. This neatly delineated the naive promise of social media (Myanmar’s government would later use Facebook as a tool for ethnic cleansing), as well as the threat perceived by governments around the world.

In smaller countries, such an extreme measure of cutting off widespread access is made possible by the fact that the internet is controlled centrally. Different countries manage their networks in a variety of ways, with some exerting control by keeping their telecommunications networks centralized, thus enabling a “kill switch.” Others rely on telecom firms to do the job for them. 

This is precisely what happened when Egyptians revolted in early 2011 under the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. After blocking Twitter and Facebook in an attempt to hinder growing anti-government demonstrations, Egypt’s government ordered local internet service providers (ISPs) to shut down networks. And yet, thanks to a decentralized telecommunications system and the government’s desire to protect the stock market from total collapse, the decision backfired.

The government chose to leave one small ISP online: Noor, which had less than 10 percent of the country’s total market share, but which was utilized by the country’s stock market. Fortunately, it was also used by some journalists, at least one of whom opened their home to other journalists and activists so that they could get online and share information with the world. (Egypt soon shut Noor down as well.)

This brief internet shutdown cost Egypt a whopping $90 million.Though it was not the first occurrence of its kind, it had an immense impact, demonstrating to human rights activists and other governments just how vital the internet had become to daily life. It also showed how weak links in the so-called tech stack, such as willing ISPs, could influence the outcome of global events. 

A growing phenomenon    

Egypt’s shutdown set the tone for the decade to come — before long, a government-mandated internet blackout was often referred to as “pulling a Mubarak.” In recent years, nations in South and Southeast Asia as well as Africa have come to lead the world in shutdowns.

In Ethiopia, where only an estimated 18 percent of people are online, the internet has nonetheless played a crucial role in drawing attention to the ongoing political and humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region — a crisis that in recent months has revealed evidence of ethnic cleansing. Yet the Ethiopian government responded to the conflict by restricting freedom of expression, shutting down the internet in parts of the country at a time when citizens needed it the most.

Last year, Ethiopia restricted access at least three times, cutting off the entire country for two weeks in June after the killing of musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa sparked protests. This past January, telecom networks in the Oromia region were disconnected, creating an information blackout and leaving residents without access to life-saving services. Myanmar has also been a repeat offender. Following an early 2020 internet shutdown in Myanmar that reportedly led to an increase in violence, a group of four UN Special Rapporteurs issued a statement calling on the government to immediately end the restrictions.

“Civilians, including children, continue to bear the brunt of this escalating conflict. We are especially fearful for them as violence has increased in the areas where an internet shutdown was recently re-imposed,” they said. “The blanket suspension of mobile internet cannot be justified and must end immediately.”

Internet shutdowns may be on the rise, but so is the movement opposing them. The #KeepItOn campaign is a growing coalition of more than 240 digital and human rights organizations from 105 countries around the world (including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where I work), that have joined together to monitor and condemn the denial of internet access to the public, fighting back against internet shutdowns wherever they occur. These efforts have won the support of 30 governments and helped end major internet shutdowns in Cameroon and Gambia, demonstrating the impact of civic activism. 

“Before 2016, when the #KeepItOn campaign started drawing the world’s attention to these serious abuses, there were no resolutions denouncing internet shutdowns, there was no recognition they violated our human rights,” says Access Now’s Felicia Anthonio, who coordinates the #KeepItOn campaign. “Today, we can reflect on the extraordinary developments made, and the milestones surpassed, in the fight to end internet shutdowns — civil society achieved this, and will continue to have a crucial role in ensuring an open, accessible internet for all.”

Just halfway through 2021, several countries have already shut down access around election periods, ostensibly in an attempt to stop misinformation from spreading — but in doing so, restricting key debate about candidates and important electoral information. Ordinary citizens can help by joining #KeepItOn, challenging the corporations and governments that are complicit in these shutdowns, providing data to help track blackouts in their countries, and supporting the myriad organizations that are working to end this practice.

This fight is essential. The systems that underpin our societies depend on the internet. Shutting it down is not an option.

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A digital landscape shows dysfunctional web browser windows and 404 errors, with a pair of scissors cutting a cable in the foreground.

Artwork By

Mariano Pascual

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