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The rise of internet shutdowns

Sarah Putt, Contributor. 05 September 2019, 2:48 pm

The number of countries that are 'shutting down the internet' is on the rise, according to the global #keepiton coalition, which monitors how often this is occurring around the world.

In 2018 there were 196 shutdowns, in 2017 there were 106 and in 2016 there were 75. The shutdowns are mostly occurring in countries where democracy is fledgling, under threat, or practically non-existent. The 'Access Now' report documenting the shutdowns came out in July, but the issue has come to the fore following the crackdown in Kashmir by the Indian government in August.

A 'shutdown' is a temporary thing as sometimes it carries on for days, and other times just a few hours. In Kazakhstan, for example, it happens almost daily when the opposition leader sends out a message on Facebook Live.

The number of 'shutdowns' recorded is probably underestimated, because they are often not announced by the government - central, regional and local - that is responsible. This is because it's possible to throttle the internet back to very low speeds and thereby inhibit the ability for people to upload data via a fixed broadband or mobile connection.

"Notably, in a variety of cases, governments never publicly acknowledge that they are responsible for a shutdown. That shifts the burden of proof to the victims, making it harder to push back or seek redress for harm done. That is all the more troubling because there appears to be a correlation between suspension of the internet and human rights violations in the dark," the report notes.

When they do announce a shutdown, the reasons given are almost never the real ones. 'Fake news', hate speech, public safety and exam cheating are popular explanations, but according to Access Now these reasons are scapegoats. "It appears that governments are leveraging shutdowns to shape the political narrative and control the flow of information."

As you might expect, there is also an economic price to pay, with one estimate being $2.4billion in global losses due to shutdowns between July 2015 and 2016. There are also disruptions to health and social services. For example, the Sudanese Doctors Union uses WhatsApp to notify each other what medical resources are required in which areas. If the internet goes down so does this communication, resulting in a lack of supplies and appropriate medical professionals at places where and when they are most needed.

There are international efforts to combat shutdowns. The UN General Assembly has condemned disruptions that violate international human rights, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, and the 30 governments in the Freedom Online Coalition have addressed shutdowns.

You can also call work by #keepiton coalition and Access Now in this report - which I first came across in an article about internet shutdowns in Zimbabwe this week - as another example. The report is online here.


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