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In Xinjiang, China, internet access was cut off for 10 months in the wake of violent riots in 2009. Two years later, the regime of Hosni Mubarak cut off internet access in Egypt to try to stem protests against his rule. Those two events triggered a domino effect of censorship worldwide, with governments taking drastic measures to clamp down on free speech online.
Once seen as a weapon of oppression yielded only by authoritarian regimes in specific regions, internet shutdowns have slowly crept into democracies around the world, including Somalia and India. More than 30 countries cut off access to the internet last year, according to Access Now, a global non-profit dedicated to an open and free internet.
“There is no doubt it is … a trend,” said Zak Rogoff, a fellow at Access Now working on its KeepItOn campaign, which monitors internet shutdowns. “There’s a lot of evidence that authoritarian regimes pay attention to each other’s tactics.”
Internet shutdowns are also evolving, utilizing more sophisticated methods that have simultaneously made them both more common and harder to detect and counter. The spread of more frequent and complex shutdowns is a threat not only to human rights and democracy but also the future of the internet as we know it.
From one oppressive regime to another
The Arab Spring highlighted the power of social media to catalyze a movement, and it put other regimes on notice that they needed to better control the flow of digital information.
While Egypt’s shutdown failed to prevent the fall of Mubarak, China’s 2009 shutdown, and subsequent clamp down on the ability of its people to share information or organize protests in regions including Tibet and Xinjiang, has strengthened the regime’s hold on power.
“The idea of authoritarian governments copying the best practices of other authoritarian governments to better enhance repression of populations, we’ve seen it in terms of offline oppression,” said Steven Feldstein, a fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Democracy and Rule of Law program. “There’s a very standard playbook that dictatorial regimes around the world use to cement their control over populations.”
What worked in China was soon replicated in Pakistan, Kenya, Somaliland, Cameroon, Syria, and dozens of other countries. Autocratic governments are not known for their openness or transparency, so it is impossible to discern, in most cases, whether these countries are sharing their strategies or if the spread is just a case of observational copycats. But one thing is clear: Once a country starts shutting down internet access, it doesn’t stop.
“Usually, the first shutdown takes place during protests, social unrest, or an event that is politically meaningful,” said Melody Patrie with Access Now. “Then it becomes a trend, and affects not just the internet, but also the economy.”
The justifications can often be seen as valid, especially in light of growing concerns over the spread of fake news, extremist content, and dangerous rumors via social networks or chat apps.
“The internet is becoming less about personal data integrity but more about national security and political control, and governments are seeing tech through that lens,” said Nicolas Seidler, senior policy adviser at the Internet Society. “The result is the mainstreaming of shutdowns.”
This can have devastating real-world impacts. Lack of internet access doesn’t just mean you can’t share potentially sensitive political content on Facebook or Twitter. It means that families can’t communicate around holidays. It means access to emergency services can be compromised, putting health at risk, and so much more. It can dramatically reduce economic well-being, as internet access is increasingly necessary to run a business or access financial services.
“What’s worrying is the fact that shutdowns, in the context where they happen arbitrarily, also undermine the trust that young people, entrepreneurs, and innovators have in the internet,” said Seidler. “It creates a societal burden and cost that might undermine the future of a country and society.”
The evolution of shutdowns
Xinjiang’s 2009 shutdown and Egypt’s efforts two years later were easy to identify. In the former, nearly all internet access was cut off for more than nine months, while in Egypt it was just five days long and too late, as protests continued until the government fell on Feb. 11.
Widespread, blunt internet shutdowns like those still take place today in places like the English-speaking of Cameroon, where strikes took place in January 2017, and in Pakistan’s tribal areas. But what worries activists is the growing use of more sophisticated tools, which could further empower governments to repress human rights and freedom of expression.
“Shutdowns … attract a lot of attention and bad press, whereas more sophisticated filtering and other techniques maybe are as effective in preventing people from communicating, but more difficult to attribute and make visible in the press,” said Seidler. “That’s my worry for the shutdown trend for the future”
China could play a major role in all of this, as it’s considered the world leader in innovation around censorship, monitoring, and shutdowns. The list of apps and websites blocked by its massive censorship apparatus, colloquially called the Great Firewall, is ever-growing, as are the country’s capabilities to rapidly and finely filter sensitive content.
“China is one of the biggest foreign investors of internet infrastructure in Africa,” Seidler said. “Maybe you can see a trend going forward where those partnerships are also linked to sharing of technology, and how to filter online content.”
While China’s 2009 Xinjiang shutdown was unprecedented, the country has moved on from widespread shutdowns and is instead using sophisticated filters to monitor and censor what’s considered sensitive content. Those filters were on full display when news broke that the Communist Party would move to allow President Xi Jinping to stay on beyond two terms. It got so bad that even just posting the word “disagree” or the letter “N” was not allowed on Chinese apps such as WeChat or Weibo
“The phenomenon of blocking access to particular services and/or cutting off the internet entirely is, unfortunately, something that is quite common around the world,” said Arturo Filastò, project lead at the Open Observatory of Network Interference, a Tor project that develops free software to observe website-blocking and censorship around the world. “Censors are becoming more sophisticated in how they implement these restrictions, as in they have started to be more fine-grained. They will not turn off the internet in all of the country, but only limit the blackout to a particular region or in the case of blocking of services, they will be sure to only block what they are interested in, to minimize collateral damage.”
For advocates, one of the challenges is that legal tools are lacking to address shutdowns. Much of global human rights law was mostly developed by international institutions in the days before the internet became so crucial for the spread of information and organizing, and as such, it often protects offline speech while ignoring or disregarding the importance of what’s happening online.
“The essential problem is there is a discrepancy between the types of actions that are protected offline,” said Feldstein. “For example, you have a meeting offline that’s broken up, that’s a clear violation of Freedom of Association. The same types of actions that are equivalent that are happening online—shutting down news sources, banning certain sites, broadband-based internet shutdowns to prevent freedom of expression… that kind of online activity is not protected to the same extent as offline activity.”
It’s not just dictators
Globally, the current haphazard system of internet governance is failing to address many concerns of the digital economy. Human rights and freedom of expression are intertwined with the lack of enforceable trade mechanisms, limited security and privacy frameworks, and much, much more.
If changes are not made in how the internet is governed, shutdowns will likely only become more common. One worrying sign: Last year, the country with the highest number of shutdowns, according to AccessNow, was the world’s most populous democracy, India.
“Shutdowns are not only something that happens in countries we consider un-democratic,” said Seidler, who mentioned Brazil as another democratic country with a worrying trend. “It’s something that might happen closer to home.”
Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom on the Net Report found that internet censorship is rising nearly everywhere in the world. If that trend continues, it might be long before an internet shutdown, in one of its many evolving forms, comes to a country, city, or neighborhood near you.