Politically censored Internet: Are Internet shutdowns becoming the new digital Dark Age?

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Politically censored Internet: Are Internet shutdowns becoming the new digital Dark Age?

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Politically censored Internet: Are Internet shutdowns becoming the new digital Dark Age?

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Several countries have resorted to Internet shutdowns to stop protests and the spread of supposedly fake news, and to keep citizens in the dark.
    • Author:
    • Author name
      Quantumrun Foresight
    • May 2, 2023

    Asia and Africa are the two continents that have experienced the largest number of Internet shutdowns since 2016. The reasons provided by the governments for shutting down the Internet have often been at odds with the actual events. This trend raises the question of whether these politically motivated Internet shutdowns are genuinely aimed at combating the spread of false information or if they are a means of suppressing information that the government finds inconvenient or damaging to its interests.

    Politically censored Internet context

    In 2018, India was the country with the largest number of Internet shutdowns imposed by local governments, according to the international non-profit organization Access Now. The group, which advocates for a free global Internet, reported that India accounted for 67 percent of all Internet shutdowns that year. The Indian government has often justified these shutdowns as a means of preventing the spread of false information and avoiding the risk of violence. However, these shutdowns are frequently implemented after the dissemination of incorrect information has already occurred, making them less effective at achieving their stated goals.

    In Russia, the government's Internet censorship has also been a cause for concern. The Melbourne-based Monash IP (Internet Protocol) Observatory, which monitors Internet activity worldwide, reported that Internet speed slowed down in Russia on the night of the Ukraine invasion in 2022. By the end of the first week of the attack, Vladimir Putin's government had blocked Facebook and Twitter, as well as foreign news channels like BBC Russia, Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe. Technology and politics correspondent Li Yuan has warned that Russia's increasing Internet censorship could result in a situation similar to China's Great Firewall, where external online information sources are entirely banned. These developments raise questions about the relationship between technology and politics, and the extent to which governments should be allowed to control and censor information available to their citizens. 

    Disruptive impact

    The ban imposed by the Russian government on major social media platforms has profoundly impacted the country's businesses and citizens. For many companies, social media platforms such as Instagram have been crucial tools for showcasing their products and services. However, the ban has made it more difficult for these businesses to reach potential customers, leading some companies to withdraw their operations from Russia. For example, when the e-commerce platform Etsy and payment gateway PayPal withdrew from Russia, individual sellers who relied on European customers could no longer conduct business.

    The ban's impact on Russia's Internet access has also led many citizens to resort to emigrating to nearby countries to regain access to online services. The withdrawal of fiber-optic carriers such as US-based providers Cogent and Lumen has led to slower Internet speeds and increased congestion, making it more difficult for people to access information and connect with others online. Russia's "digital iron curtain" could end in a tightly controlled, state-run online ecosystem like China's, where the government strictly censors books, movies, and music, and freedom of speech is virtually non-existent. 

    More importantly, politically censored Internet can facilitate the spread of misinformation and propaganda, as governments and other actors may use censorship to control the narrative and manipulate public opinion. This can severely affect social stability, as it can fuel division and conflict within societies.

    Implications of a politically censored Internet

    Wider implications of a politically censored Internet may include:

    • Emergency services, such as public health and safety, being affected by frequent shutdowns, making it difficult to communicate and update people in need.
    • Autocratic governments and military juntas increasingly using Internet blackouts to prevent rebellions, revolutions, and civil wars. Similarly, such blackouts will result in less organization and coordination of social movements, reducing the ability of citizens to effect change and advocate for their rights.
    • Restriction of alternative sources of information such as independent media, individual subject matter experts, and thought leaders.
    • Limited exchange of ideas and access to information, which are critical for informed decision-making and democratic processes.
    • The creation of a fragmented internet, reducing the flow and velocity of ideas and information across borders, leading to a more isolated and less globally connected world.
    • The widening of the digital divide by limiting access to information and opportunities for those without access to an uncensored Internet.
    • Limited access to information and training resources, preventing workers' growth and advancement.
    • Suppressed information related to environmental issues, hindering efforts to address and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

    Questions to consider

    • How else do you think a politically censored Internet can affect society?
    • What are the possible technologies that can arise to counter (or reinforce) Internet censorship?

    Insight references

    The following popular and institutional links were referenced for this insight: