Abdelazim Hassan is not tall. His voice does not boom. He is balding, wears glasses, and his suit, the dark brown of a standard boardroom table, hangs from his body as if it has given up. He’s mostly a corporate lawyer, though from time to time, his business crusades become a kind of moral battle, like the one he waged to get back his internet.

Hassan lives in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, where, last year, months of political upheaval unseated a dictatorship. In December 2018, thousands of people across Sudan began protesting the skyrocketing price of bread. Crowds swelled in the streets of Atbara, a town about five hours from Khartoum, and news flew across social media, igniting the imagination of the whole country and spreading revolutionary fire, literally and figuratively, from city to city. These flames crossed hundreds of miles — until finally, after just three days, the protests reached Khartoum, the home of Omar al-Bashir, the authoritarian who’d ruled Sudan for 30 years.

In response, Bashir blocked the internet — or rather, social media, the part of the internet that dictators believe “start” revolutions. From then until February, it was nearly impossible to access Twitter, Facebook, or WhatsApp unless you had a Virtual Private Network (VPN). The block was described around the world as an internet “blackout,” but it was more like the start of a cat-and-mouse game, an online version of the taunting and harassment his security services were inflicting on people in restive residential neighborhoods. Bashir surely knew that VPNs could get around the ban, but he also knew that the need for a workaround was a restrained reminder of his own power. 

By April, that had dried up. During a second social media block, Bashir was removed by his generals, and the country’s leadership was passed to a military council headed by the man who’d directed Bashir’s scorched-earth campaign in Darfur. This only further angered protesters, who wanted a civilian-led democracy, and they flooded the streets of Khartoum, sat down, and stayed — for two months, until the early hours of June 3, 2019. On that morning, the last day of the holy month of Ramadan, men wearing the uniforms of Sudan’s feared Rapid Support Forces broke up the crowd with live fire. As the government attacked its own people, they held up their cell phones, broadcasting the violence on Facebook Live or huddling in makeshift hiding spaces, video recording WhatsApp messages of apology and love for their families. 

Until the internet really went off.

This was no soft social media slowdown. The new regime, inexperienced and jittery, lunged for the “kill switch.” No VPN workarounds, no landline access, nothing. On global maps of internet traffic, Sudan simply disappeared. 

Digital rights activists worldwide, and many Sudanese abroad, took to social media to exhort outrage. In Khartoum, people kept quiet, stayed home, and waited. After the massacre, in which at least 100 people were killed and 700 injured, according to Amnesty International, it was dangerous to venture too far from home because it was hard to know, without access to the relevant Facebook pages, which streets were safe. If the government was willing to gun down its own people in the capital, what might it do next?

A week after the shutdown, Hassan lost patience with waiting. So he put his incongruous faith in the law to the test and sued Zain, his cell phone provider. He argued that Zain had unlawfully reneged on the terms of its contract with him. Hassan had promised to pay his bill each month, and Zain had promised, unconditionally, to give him internet access. In Hassan’s view, Zain had committed a violation — not of free speech or of digital rights but of its own terms of service. Even in heady times of revolution, the workings of democracy can be banal.

Abdelazim al-Hassan presents his lawsuit at a press conference in Khartoum.
Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images

It’s hard to overstate the incongruity — the absurdity, even — of arguing the finer points of contract law in the wake of a civilian massacre, before a judge who answers to an unaccountable military regime. And yet, there’s nowhere but local courts to turn to when the government takes away the internet. There’s no international treaty protecting internet access, no global legal body that sanctions a rogue government or cellular provider. There’s just a guy like Hassan and his rather niggling complaint that someone didn’t live up to their end of a deal. 

And improbably, it worked. The court ordered Zain to give him back his internet, and, on June 23, it did. But Hassan was just one plaintiff, suing on behalf of only himself, so the court and the cell phone company took a narrow course of action: Ignoring the millions of other customers Zain served, the court switched mobile internet back on … for him

Because the ruling was based on a technicality, it sidestepped the bigger battles of human rights and state power that often frame how we think about shutdowns. This was no rallying event for digital crusaders. Instead, Hassan’s case was a microcosm of the realities, rather than the rhetoric, that comprise most internet shutdowns. Whatever big ideas may be at stake, such shutdowns are messy, leaky, and, above all, human — and the fights against them are key proxy battles in the power struggles between people and their governments.

Young people sit together along the banks of the Blue Nile River in Khartoum, Sudan, Jan. 19, 2020. Since the revolution that overthrew President Omar Al-Bashir, social restrictions between men and women have relaxed in some areas.
Holly Pickett/Redux, for Rest of World

According to data from the digital rights advocacy group Access Now and the #KeepItOn Coalition, shutdowns, slowdowns, social media blocks, or other forms of digital interference have increased sevenfold since 2015. Around half of all shutdowns most years occur in India, where internet interference has become a regular feature of regional governance during political tensions. Last year alone, disruptions totaled more than 18,000 hours in 21 countries — most of them democracies. 

It’s hard to say whether shutdowns are effective, partly because people who really want to communicate stubbornly manage to do so anyway and partly because those implementing them rarely have clearly articulated policy goals. “What we usually see is governments scrambling and desperate to silence demonstrators, to stop the spread of news they’re embarrassed or threatened by, and to control the flow of information during elections or sensitive political periods,” says Peter Micek, general counsel for Access Now. When governments do bother to justify shutdowns, they tend to offer vague concerns about law and order, or even about cheating on school exams, as has happened in Algeria, Iraq, Syria, and Ethiopia.  

Digital rights activists use the term “internet shutdown” to refer to any kind of interference with online access, from blocking specific websites to cutting traffic on the undersea cables that supply connectivity to mobile and landline service providers. From a rights perspective, any interference with access is a free speech violation. But analytically, the umbrella term obscures more than it reveals. It equates the moments you need a VPN to check Facebook with the moments you simply can’t send a WhatsApp message saying you’re still alive. And it assumes that all internet interference has the same blunt objective: silence. 

It’s impossible to say with certainty what kind of silence the military council wanted to enforce with the June shutdown — whether it was quieting internal dissent and impeding communication between the revolution’s leaders or blocking damning images from getting out of the country. Most people Rest of World spoke with assumed the latter. Unlike Bashir, Sudan’s new leaders had never implemented an internet shutdown, which means they hadn’t understood a basic fact: Even the most ruthless dictators don’t have total control over the internet. Whatever their method of interference, they need help. That’s why the most important actors in an internet shutdown are not the strongmen who issue the order: They’re the telecommunications companies. And that’s where the shutdown in Sudan simultaneously took place and broke down.

President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum on 30 December 2018.

Original caption:

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir arrives to meet with police officials at the headquarters of the
Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images

It wasn’t until five or six hours after the June 3 massacre began that the data stopped. Like a power outage moving down a city block, one by one, internet providers went down — Sudan’s four mobile companies between 11 a.m. and noon, and its landline internet by 4 p.m. That each mobile network went down at a different time suggests that the telecoms made the tactical decisions about when and how exactly to take people offline. 

By itself, this is not unusual for internet shutdowns. “For all the reporting about internet kill switches … we find that, around the world, when governments want to switch off their citizens’ internet, it’s a slow, complicated, human process,” says Alp Toker, the executive director of NetBlocks, a digital rights organization that monitors internet blockages in real time. And the most important targets are mobile phones. In Sudan, as in so many other non-Western countries, internet access is mobile. Without smartphones — or their more limited cousin, the “feature phone” — there is effectively no internet.

During each of Sudan’s shutdowns — Bashir’s social media blocks and the June blackout — data leaked through. VPNs carved gaping canyons into Bashir’s social media blockages, but even the blackout proved porous. When Toker analyzed the traffic of Sudan’s three main cell phone providers, he saw some evidence of low-level connectivity: There was traffic to Facebook on Zain, for example. In other words, the internet never went completely down. 

It’s impossible to know who, precisely, the access was meant for. (Neither Zain nor MTN, a multinational telecom company that also operates in Sudan, replied to queries from Rest of World.) But inside the telecom companies, there were some engineers who sympathized with the revolution. So they did something the regulators weren’t prepared for: They switched some people back on. 

Khalid Omar, a leader of the Forces for Freedom and Change, an umbrella group that led the revolution, said that, after the blackout began, he was given a new SIM card, with a new number, by a sympathetic engineer and was told that it was internet-enabled. Another leader described a similar arrangement. “The data was even free,” he said, surprise still in his voice. Two engineers, working at different mobile companies in Sudan, confirmed the connectivity. Both described a committee of telecom engineers, working across all the companies in the industry, who coordinated clandestine plans for enabling access.

Talking about the political and technical mechanics of the internet shutdown order remains a dangerous affair. Sudan’s military leaders consider the internet a national security matter, and the country’s surveillance methods, offline and on, are well honed. Engineers at telecommunications companies outside Sudan described to us multiple technical procedures that any individual engineer, with the right knowledge and network access codes, could use to make limited, discrete access both possible and invisible. The Sudanese engineers, however, wouldn’t discuss the details of how they executed their plan. “I don’t know if anyone told you, but our revolution is not over,” one of them said. “If someone has a secret weapon, they cannot tell others.” 

People clumped on street corners by banks and hotels — any place where a Wi-Fi signal could be picked up on a phone — and used a decryption app to crack network passwords.

But the government soon discovered that its greatest vulnerability during the shutdown was its own need for internet. By June 8, five days after the blackout began, landline access was switched back on. It was the most conservative option available: Landlines are rare and comparatively costly, subscribers are few, and landline access doesn’t reach much farther than banks, ministries, and private businesses. Even so, once it was restored, it made a difference. 

One place landline access returned was a study space, a kind of WeWork for university students, in Burri, the heartbeat of the revolution. The business was making good money until the marches began — here, they were weekly, at some points daily, occurrences — and with them, clashes between the youth and the police. One day, in late February, the police took poor aim, and a tear gas canister meant for protesters broke the window of the study space. Clients disappeared after that — until landline access came back, and the study space was the only nearby place with internet. They paid 100 Sudanese pounds, or about $1.15, on top of the usual day rate of 30 pounds, about 55 cents, for the day’s Wi-Fi password. (In Khartoum, 100 pounds can buy ten bus trips or five bottles of Coca-Cola.) So many students showed up that the study space made up for two months of lost revenue in just a few weeks. Customers sent messages, checked social media, and studied. “My textbooks,” said Mohamed Hussein, a 21-year-old medical student, “are all online.”

With landline access came, almost immediately, landline hackers. A group of young techies operating independently from the rogue telecom ring set up parallel Wi-Fi through the government’s own network. Exploiting a vulnerability in the system, they were able to broadcast a new signal, “Sudan Revolution,” without disturbing the original network. They organized the work and spread the word the old-fashioned way, through word of mouth and SMS.

The blackout turned ordinary Sudanese into everyday hackers too. People clumped on street corners by banks and hotels — any place where a Wi-Fi signal could be picked up on a phone — and used a decryption app to crack network passwords. The IT manager at one mid-range hotel, well-known among United Nations clientele for its fast and reliable internet, said he had to change the password twice a day when too many people logged on. But he and the hotel’s owners sympathized with the people trying to get online to contact their families, so he’d wait until the network speed dropped to 1 Mpbs before hitting reset.

A cyber cafe in Khartoum, Sudan in January 2020.


Original caption:

039-042 A cyber café. Some cyber cafés had service after the internet was partially restored, so they became very crowded.

Khartoum, Sudan, Jan. 7, 2020.
Holly Pickett/Redux, for Rest of World

It’s paradoxical that the place to watch the fight for connectivity unfold in Sudan was actually offline, in the streets. This was especially apparent in Khartoum, where access to the Internet is about more than distraction or convenience; it’s about adapting to offline scarcities. The prime example of this is the shortage of money. Many people in Sudan live in poverty, but all of Sudan is cash-poor: Because of the lack of hard currency and one of the world’s worst inflation rates, transactions in Khartoum are mostly electronic. Since 2018, banks have limited withdrawals, and in Khartoum, people use cash mostly for incidental purchases — a loaf of bread, a hit of shisha, or a glass of jebbeneh, the sweet, strong Sudanese coffee served by women wrapped in full-body scarves at the tea stands scattered across the city. 

Normally, Khartoum is a bustling place. Residential neighborhoods and business strips blend into each other, and although most people are no more than a few miles from downtown, the city’s famously clogged streets can make that journey last an hour or more. All of that commercial movement effectively ceased during the shutdown. Grocers watched their businesses shrivel as customers counted the pounds they had on hand and prioritized emergency over necessity. Cybercafes, supermarkets, PlayStation parlors, and pirated movie hawkers said their revenues plummeted between 60% and 75% or more. Where people once waited at registers to pay with bank cards or mobile money, they instead either handed over the little cash they had or simply stayed home. 

When sales were made, cash piled up, and quickly armed robberies became common. Minal Awad Mohammed, who helps manage Khartoum’s oldest grocery store, always employs a police officer out front. During the shutdown, she hired three more. They protected the shop but ate into the profits. Khalid Ali, a 23-year-old who sells cables, moved through Khartoum like a rogue spy — backpack full of cash, gun hidden in his pocket, changing cabs and checking rearview mirrors in case he was tailed by would-be thieves. Mohammed Mustafa, who supplies Nivea beauty products to corner stores, once finished a delivery 30 minutes before gunmen arrived and killed a customer. The insecurity spooked Mustafa into depositing cash daily, although he knew he was unlikely to see the money again. “It was a very bad feeling,” he said, “like burying someone in the graveyard. You know when you go that this one is just not coming back.” 

If it’s hard to imagine the practical chaos the shutdown created, it’s perhaps even harder to appreciate what losing the internet feels like in a place where online life was more open and, to many, more fulfilling than real life. People in Khartoum spoke of the shutdown with mourning in their voice. Unable to connect with the world in the ways they were used to, many were left feeling existentially isolated. Abubakar Abdulrahman, who owns a phone repair and tech shop, looked pained and dropped his eyes when asked what the shutdown was like. “You don’t know what’s going on. You can’t do anything. You can’t even comfort the people who are outside the country and tell them you’re okay,” he said quietly. “It was really terrible.”

Mazin Elfatih, a 28-year-old network engineer, talked about the internet as if it were a loved one. “Literally, it’s my life. I learn everything watching YouTube — languages, programming,” he said. During the blackout, he continued, “You’re alone. There’s no network. There’s no progress, no knowledge, no acquiring skills. You’re a person, alone. … You’re living, but you’re dead, in some kind of way.” 

A customer buys phone credit from a kiosk in downtown Khartoum, Sudan, Jan. 19, 2020. The kiosk owner uses a handheld machine to add the credit to each customer’s phone number.
Holly Pickett/Redux, for Rest of World

The June mobile internet shutdown lasted 37 days and, together with Bashir’s earlier social media blocks, cost the country an estimated $1.9 billion. The pains of the blackout, like the revolution itself, were felt most dramatically outside the capital, where people live with much less than they do in Khartoum. But if the goal was to disrupt political momentum, it had the opposite effect. “We didn’t have the option of getting depressed,” said Amgad Fareid Eltayeb, who was on the leadership committee of the Sudanese Professionals Association. “There was no option of going back, but there was no option of stopping, either.”

Old-fashioned phones and text messages, though easy to surveil, still worked. More importantly, much as social media had amplified calls to march or strike or join a sit-in, the revolution became an analog affair. A new network of “neighborhood committees” spread across the city, a revolutionary counterpart to the corrupt local councils that were central to Bashir’s mafia-surveillance state. “The neighborhood committees were the core of the revolution, especially when we had no internet,” said Sara Isam, a doctor who spearheaded public health management during the sit-in. During the blackout, they passed notes at stoplights or slipped pieces of paper under doors in the dead of night. They also turned the streets of Khartoum into offline message boards, tagging walls, billboards, and signs with graffiti announcing the next demo. 

It all came to an end on June 30, nearly four weeks to the day after the massacre — and 30 years to the day after Bashir came to power in a coup — when several thousand people marched across the capital. “We had the feeling it wouldn’t work without internet, that we shouldn’t have high expectations,” said Omar, one of the leaders. “It astonished us. The biggest demonstration in the history of Sudan had been organized offline.” Not long after, the government agreed to negotiate a transition to civilian rule. And nine days after the march, Sudan’s high court ruled on a class-action suit that Hassan brought after his own personal victory. It ordered all the telecom companies to restore the Internet to subscribers; they complied the same day.

Life across Khartoum, meanwhile, has opened up. Though many of the country’s strict religious laws still exist, they’re no longer being enforced. The agents of the once-feared National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) have less influence now, the public order police are powerless to tell boys and girls relaxing along the Nile at sundown not to flirt or hold hands, and there’s no one to watch whether people go to church. Street life bustles, restaurants swell, live bands blend traditional Sudanese sounds with global pop rhythms on Friday nights. “Merry Christmas!” one Sudanese journalist, a Muslim, said to me on the phone when we spoke on the holiday. “We’re able to wish our Christian brothers merry Christmas for the first time.” 

Of course, major political challenges remain. The economy is in tatters, and international banks and investors are only slowly warming to the idea of doing business in Sudan. There are also still occasional outbursts. Protestors recently took to the streets to protest the transitional government’s approach to military reform. In early March, the prime minister narrowly survived an assassination attempt by unknown attackers. People say that, until elections are held in 2022, they expect some volatility. They’re aiming not so much for peace as for calm. 

A mural at the site of the sit-ins in Khartoum, Sudan in January 2020.

ORIGINAL CAPTION

Art at the sit-in space. At right is the outline of Sudan, with a barbed-wire fence separating South Sudan, with a caged bird flying free.

Internet Shutdown during Sudan Revolution
Holly Pickett/Redux, for Rest of World

And while it’s tempting, and not entirely off the mark, to see legal wrangling as a sideshow during times of violence, many people in Khartoum say Hassan’s case was crucial. Globally, there have been almost two dozen similar lawsuits alleging the illegality of internet shutdowns, most of them brought within the last year. Few have been decided as quickly as the case in Sudan, but when they are, the plaintiffs usually win, as they have in India, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan — places not always known for upholding the principles of democracy.

Most of those cases don’t try to establish sweeping claims of internet freedom. Like the shutdowns themselves, they are instead based on technicalities. Increasingly, that’s all there is. Few countries have laws protecting internet access, and there is no clear path toward international enforcement. Though the United Nations Human Rights Council named internet access a basic human right in 2016, its own telecommunications agency still recognizes countries’ sovereign rights to limit it for “security, public order, or decency.” If you want to fight a shutdown, local courts are often the only option. And even then, “I don’t think there’s any silver bullet,” said Micek, the lawyer for Access Now. 

Data rights activists, meanwhile, fear that technological progress, like 5G, will soon enable more surgical shutdowns. Individual users may be pinpointed with customized attacks — the kind of data loss that could look like a network glitch, if you didn’t know you were the only one affected. And countries like Russia and Iran are sidestepping these matters almost entirely by building “sovereign internets” that can keep users connected to the things they need, like mobile money and government email, and cut them off from the “real,” global internet that the government doesn’t want them to have. It’s no surprise, then, that access to information and communication technology systems were a sticking point in last summer’s negotiations between Sudan’s military and revolutionary leaders, which led to a transitional, civilian-led government. Seven months on, Sudan still has no ministry of information and communication technology nor even a central coordinating body. The question of who “owns” the internet is still highly sensitive. And elections are still nearly two years away. But during negotiations, the revolutionaries did score one victory: A key pillar of Sudan’s interim constitution was the right to free and open internet.