Shutdowns are common, expensive, and take many forms
Internet shutdowns have become a common tool that governments can use to repress free speech, curtail access to information, and punish protest. In 2020 alone, 29 countries restricted access to the web at least 155 times, according to a recent report from Access Now. Doing so is expensive; internet shutdowns cost the global economy $8 billion in 2019. India lost $2.8 billion due to internet shutdowns in 2020.
Shutdowns vary in severity, from wide-reaching to narrowly targeted. People have gotten creative about circumventing government blocks, downloading content via satellite in Iran or using a VPN in Russia.
The experts who spoke to Rest of World noted that governments use a combination of tactics to limit internet access. Here are a few examples.
The bluntest instrument is a time- or location-based shutdown, literally going dark. Some countries have begun instituting large-scale internet blackouts in anticipation of protests or in the lead-up to elections.
One such blackout earlier this year in Uganda left the country dark for about 100 hours, as citizens went to the polls in the presidential election. But these kinds of wholesale shutdowns “tend to be unsustainable because it’s catching a lot of other services, including the government’s own communications,” Jason Pielemeier, the policy director for the Global Network Institute, told Rest of World.
More recently, the military junta in Myanmar has been shutting down the internet every night from 1 a.m. to 6:30 a.m., allowing it to conduct raids and arrests under the cover of darkness, while not disrupting its own communications or the larger economy by day.
Blocking Real-Time Communication
One of the most common forms of an internet shutdown is blocking a specific site or type of site.
This can sound a lot like censorship, but Peter Micek, general counsel for Access Now, said there is a key difference: censorship could involve blocking a news website or a source of information like Wikipedia, but it crosses a line into a “shutdown” when governments start blocking apps or websites that offer real-time communications.
“Shutting down a news website is a terrible act of censorship and disproportionate,” said Micek. “But we would not call that really a shutdown because generally the news websites or Wikipedia aren’t used to facilitate real-time organizing.”
Most often, this means governments are targeting social media or messaging apps. This was the tactic used in 2018 by Sudan’s former president Omar al-Bashir as people took to the streets to protest the increasing cost of living and the country’s dismal economy.
Unlike a sweeping blackout, blocking real-time communication means that there’s less disruption for businesses or the government’s own communications, which Pielemeier said means these kinds of shutdowns can be sustained over weeks, months, or even years.
Disconnecting Mobile Data
In some cases, governments may specifically shut down mobile internet access but continue to allow calls and texts.
Mobile data targeting normally happens at the ISP level, according to Micek, but some countries can go even further, tampering with what are known as border gateway protocols (BGP), the connectivity routes in and out of a country.
“Those are more centrally controlled,” said Micek. “It seems like there was some tampering in Myanmar about a month ago to some of these border gateway protocol routes, and that can have a really major impact because basically your entire internet space can be taken offline.”
Sometimes, an internet outage doesn’t involve outright cuts at all: throttling, or intentionally slowing down internet speeds, can be just as effective at cutting off access.
In India in 2019, the government throttled the mobile internet across Kashmir, restricting all mobile data to 2G. This has made everything from getting accurate information about the pandemic to e-learning difficult, if not impossible, for millions of people.
Last month, the Russian government began to throttle Twitter, supposedly because the site had left up “illegal” content. Most experts agree that it was likely a reaction to the large-scale protests in support of opposition politician Alexey Navalny, which were partly organized on Twitter. Recent research from the Censored Planet lab at the University of Michigan found that this particular incident was the first time that the deep packet inspection (DPI) technologies that Russia has been using to censor the internet were implemented on such a large scale.