Authoritarian governments from 21 countries have deliberately shut down internet service at least 50 times this year, and the problem is only bound to get worse. As regimes such as Venezuela face elections and Cuba experience protests, they’re finding it easier to contain dissent by curtailing digital freedoms — and are becoming increasingly brazen in doing so.
Shutting down the internet can be as easy as flipping a switch. Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt took this approach in 2011, and 10 years later, Myanmar’s daily shutdowns lasted months — depriving hundreds of thousands of people the means to communicate and shrinking the country’s GDP by an estimated 2.5%. Just this week in Sudan, citizens are experiencing disruptions to internet access in the midst of an ongoing military coup.
Most governments are more nuanced, however.
The Iranian government was among the first to block websites, as it did in 2009 during the Green Movement. Others, like Tunisia, blocked only certain websites amidst protests demanding greater accountability this year. Increasingly, governments use their control over internet service providers to "throttle," or slow down, particular domains to an unusable speed. Russia, for instance, recently throttled Twitter for refusing to remove “objectionable” content about opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
Governments provide myriad reasons for restricting internet access. Officials often cite national security or a fear of violence during public demonstrations. But as people live more of their lives online, governments’ ability to restrict internet access represents a grave threat to safety, freedom and well-being.
After all, the internet’s growth as a global, borderless network of networks has been a boon to human freedom, providing new ways to discover information and new channels to organize. But growing opposition to a truly global open internet from a surprising number of governments risks a mounting erosion of freedoms as more aspects of our lives shift online.
The problem of deliberate shutdowns has escalated — and UN Special Rapporteur Clement Voule recently warned that shutdowns are getting worse and more widespread. Internet shutdowns are increasingly being used as the primary tool for governments to silence dissent and control their populations without attracting the ire of the international community.
Internet shutdowns affect people far beyond restricting communication: They immobilize economies by halting commerce and trade, keep people from attending school and endanger lives. But as covert blocking techniques like throttling have become commonplace, detection of shutdowns has become more difficult. The increasing complexity of the internet makes it difficult to determine what is happening when a government limits its citizens’ access. And it’s impossible to condemn what you can’t see.
Documenting even partial internet shutdowns is a critical first step to addressing this issue globally. No government should be able to shut down the internet without the international community knowing about it. That’s why Jigsaw is working with leading researchers at Access Now, Censored Planet, Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and others to make information available, build understanding and mitigate the impact of shutdowns.
A number of resources can reduce the impact of internet shutdowns. Mesh networks, virtual private networks (VPNs) and shared proxy servers can provide the means to help people connect to the open web during shutdowns. Implementing internetwide standards can make domain-level throttling more difficult.
But technology is only one part of the solution. Preventing future shutdowns requires political action: raising the cost of such action in the eyes of the international community.
Grassroots efforts to highlight internet shutdowns such as the #KeepItOn movement, a coalition of more than 240 organizations from 105 countries, provides a range of advocacy, technical support and legal interventions to prevent future shutdowns.
Democratic governments, too, should unite in action.
As the world's most technologically advanced democracies formalize their multilateral coordination on technology issues in groupings like the T-12 or the Quad, they should prioritize internet shutdowns as a key pillar of their agenda. Through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States and other like-minded states could build on the work of the Online Freedom Coalition, a grouping of 35 democracies committed to online freedom, to enhance funding efforts to understand the technical aspects of the threat and develop technical and policy responses. They could ensure concerted condemnation accompanies future shutdowns and articulate "red lines" to trigger sanctions on countries violating their commitments under international human rights law.
Despite the challenges, it is up to democracies to take up the rallying cry for a free and open internet. Only then might the promise of a universally accessible internet be fulfilled.