Restricted Internet: When the threat of disconnection becomes a weapon

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Restricted Internet: When the threat of disconnection becomes a weapon

Restricted Internet: When the threat of disconnection becomes a weapon

Subheading text
Many countries routinely cut off online access to some parts of their territories and populations to punish and control their respective citizens.
    • Author:
    • Author name
      Quantumrun Foresight
    • October 31, 2022

    International human rights law recognizes that access to the Internet has become a fundamental right, including the right to use it for peaceful assembly. However, more countries have increasingly restricted their Internet access. These restrictions comprise shutdowns ranging from broad-scale online and mobile network disconnection to other network disruptions, such as blocking specific services or applications, including social media platforms and messaging apps.

    Restricted Internet context

    There were at least 768 government-sponsored Internet disruptions in more than 60 countries since 2016, according to data from the nongovernmental organization #KeepItOn Coalition. Around 190 internet shutdowns have hindered peaceful assemblies, and 55 election blackouts have occurred. Additionally, from January 2019 to May 2021, there were 79 additional incidents of protest-related shutdowns, including multiple elections in countries like Benin, Belarus, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Uganda, and Kazakhstan.

    In 2021, nonprofit organizations, Access Now and #KeepItOn documented 182 cases of shutdowns across 34 countries compared with 159 shutdowns across 29 nations recorded in 2020. The alarming increase demonstrated how oppressive (and common) this method of public control has become. With a single, decisive action, authoritarian governments can isolate their respective populations to better control the information they receive.

    Examples are authorities in Ethiopia, Myanmar, and India that shut down their Internet services in 2021 to squash dissent and attain political power over their respective citizens. Similarly, Israeli bombings in the Gaza Strip damaged telecoms towers that supported vital communication infrastructure and newsrooms for Al Jazeera and the Associated Press.

    Meanwhile, governments in 22 nations limited a range of communications platforms. For example, in Pakistan, authorities blocked access to Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok ahead of planned anti-government demonstrations. In other countries, officials went even further by outlawing the usage of virtual private networks (VPNs) or blocking access to them.

    Disruptive impact

    In 2021, Special Rapporteur Clement Voule reported at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) that Internet shutdowns are now “lasting longer” and “becoming more difficult to detect.” He also claimed that these methods weren’t exclusive to authoritarian regimes. Shutdowns have been documented in democratic countries in line with broader trends. In Latin America, for example, restricted access was recorded only in Nicaragua and Venezuela as of 2018. However, since 2018, Colombia, Cuba, and Ecuador have reportedly adopted shutdowns in connection to mass protests.

    National security services around the world have improved their ability to “throttle” bandwidth in specific cities and regions to prevent protestors from interacting with one another ahead of time or during protests. These law enforcement organizations often targeted specific social media and messaging applications. Additionally, disruption to Internet access has continued during the COVID-19 pandemic and challenged people’s access to essential health services. 

    Internet and mobile phone freezes had been accompanied by other restrictive measures, such as criminalizing journalists and human rights defenders during the pandemic. Public condemnation from intergovernmental organizations like the UN and G7 did nothing to stop this practice. Nonetheless, there have been some legal victories, such as when the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court ruled that a 2017 Internet shutdown in Togo was illegal. However, it’s doubtful that such tactics will prevent governments from further weaponizing the restricted Internet.

    Implications of restricted Internet

    Wider implications of restricted Internet may include: 

    • More severe economic losses caused by business disruptions and limited access to financial services.
    • More disruptions in essential services such as healthcare access, remote work, and education, leading to economic distress.
    • Authoritarian regimes retaining their grip on power more effectively by controlling the means of communication.
    • Protest movements resorting to offline communication methods, resulting in slower information dissemination.
    • The UN implementing anti-restricted Internet global regulations and penalizing member nations that don’t comply.

    Questions to comment on

    • What are some incidents of Internet shutdowns in your country?
    • What are the potential long-term consequences of this practice?

    Insight references

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