Internet shutdowns have become a weapon of repressive regimes
ON 26 SEPTEMBER Residents of the state of Rajasthan in northwest India discovered that their cell phones could no longer connect to the internet. For several hours, services such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Google Maps were rendered useless. The breakdown was not an accident. District officials explained that they had ordered internet providers to shut down access to preemptive cheating on an exam for coveted teaching positions in the state’s school system. But the shutdown has affected millions more. In Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, around 80,000 stores and businesses have been forced to close.
This is not the first time that the Indian government has unplugged its citizens. Access Now, a New York-based advocacy group, estimates that state and local authorities across the country have shut down mobile or broadband networks nearly 500 times since 2016. And although India is the worst offender, This is not the only one. According to Access Now, 66 countries have implemented closures, in one form or another, since 2016 (see map). In 2019 alone, there were 213 such incidents.
Stops have become more sophisticated in recent years. The authorities have learned to withdraw specific platforms, such as WhatsApp or Twitter, to discourage political mobilization. They can also ask Internet service providers to deliberately limit or slow down network traffic or to use only mobile Internet connections. Closures can affect individual cities or entire countries; they can last a few hours or drag on for months. In Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where the army and rebel forces have clashed for nearly a year, residents have been isolated for more than 300 days.
The motivations for such interruptions are generally political. India ordered the Internet shutdown to quell local protests and eradicate civil unrest, especially in the Kashmir Valley. This year, Uganda, Niger and the Democratic Republic of the Congo imposed blackouts in the run-up to close elections. Authorities typically justify their actions on the grounds that they protect the public from hate speech or disinformation, but advocacy groups claim they suppress free speech and help cover up human rights violations.
They are expensive, too. Study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, found internet shutdowns cost countries $ 2.4 billion in losses GDP in 2016. Some consider them to be human rights violations. In 2016, the United Nations passed a resolution declaring the Internet a human right and condemning “measures aimed at intentionally preventing or disrupting access to our dissemination of information online”. The resolution was adopted without a vote, but a number of countries supported amendments to weaken it. Among them were China, Russia and India. ■