- Internet shutdowns are intentional disruptions to internet access and digital communications.
- Shutdowns are a common tactic that governments use to suppress dissent.
- “Shutting off the internet in times of political upheaval, civil unrest and instability is one of the key building blocks for authoritarianism,” a cybersecurity expert at the World Economic Forum said.
There’s been a recent wave of demonstrations across Iran with pictures and videos of the unrest flooding the internet, alongside calls for reform.
Yet protesters quickly realized that communications were being stifled, with popular messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal failing to connect. In many areas, the internet was taken completely offline.
Internet shutdowns are a common tactic that governments use to suppress dissent and quell unrest. In 2021, at least 182 internet shutdowns were documented in 34 countries, according to Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition, an international association of digital advocacy groups.
The practice has also emerged as a major human rights issue, with many arguing that internet shutdowns constitute a violation of freedom of expression and assembly.
How do governments shut down the internet?
While internet networks are often vast and complex, deliberately shutting down the internet is simple for governments—especially for more authoritarian states that maintain broad control over the private sector.
“For too long, internet shutdowns have been too easy a decision for governments to make, and too easy an action for them to implement,” said Felicia Anthonio, the #KeepItOn campaign manager at Access Now.
Governments, in coordination with public and private internet service and utility providers, can shut down the internet in many ways. For instance, governments can cut off the power grid or dismantle internet service infrastructure like cell phone towers and fiber optic cables.
Network routers and domain name systems can also be manipulated. Respectively, these techniques entail blocking content from passing through key network gateways, effectively stopping all internet traffic, and redirecting traffic away from intended online destinations.
Governments can also restrict access to specific websites or communication platforms—like Facebook, Telegram or WhatsApp—by blocking specific URLs or IP addresses.
Distributed denial-of-service attacks, which entail disrupting internet access by overwhelming a server with a deluge of traffic, can be deployed, too.
For example governments have restricted access to platforms such as Google and YouTube during opposition speeches, according to the internet freedom tracking organization NetBlocks.
“The method of internet interruption can give some indications of the intentions behind the shutoff,” said Gretchen Bueermann, a specialist at the World Economic Forum’s Centre for Cybersecurity.
“For example, some types of disruptions are relatively easy to circumnavigate for a technologically aware person, while others are nearly impossible, revealing a government’s willingness to paralyse critical infrastructure in the interest of control.”
Moreover, governments can enact shutdowns by slowing the internet to unusable speeds. This tactic is known as throttling and often entails restricting bandwidth capabilities.
In particular, throttling can make sharing videos and live streams—key components of modern protest movements—near impossible. In 2021, Access Now recorded throttling in at least 10 countries.
“Again and again, we’re seeing governments plunging people into darkness when they need access to information and communication platforms the most,” Anthonio added.
How internet shutdowns impact society
Internet access has become an integral and essential part of life for much of the world. In fact, in 2016, the United Nations declared that it considers internet access a human right.
Many opponents argue that internet shutdowns are a violation of civil liberties as they effectively hinder the public’s ability to assemble and cut off the free flow of information. This can allow authoritarian governments to silence critics and create distorted information echo chambers.
“Shutting off the internet not only disrupts citizen’s ability to get critical information and communicate with each other, but it digitally obfuscates the affected region from the outside world, further creating a path of least resistance for misinformation, disinformation and malicious propaganda,” Bueermann said.
Internet shutdowns also constitute a collective punishment, negatively impacting not only political opponents and protest groups but society as a whole. This is especially worrisome, experts note, given the widespread dependency on internet connectivity.
Such consequences include impeding lifesaving care at hospitals and disrupting schooling. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, researchers found that remote learning was significantly obstructed by internet shutdowns in Bangladesh, Myanmar and India.
“Shutdowns restrict a range of human rights, from freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, to economic and social rights, as people rely on the internet for their livelihoods, education, and health,” said Deborah Brown, a senior technology researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch.
“What’s more, shutting down access to the internet and communications networks can cost lives, especially during periods of unrest or a public health emergency.”
Internet shutdowns significantly impact businesses, too. In Myanmar, for instance, the government imposed several internet shutdowns in the months following a military coup in February 2021. The World Bank estimates that the shutdowns cost Myanmar’s economy roughly $2.8 billion.
Another study found that between 2019 and 2021, internet shutdowns in 46 countries resulted in losses of over $20.5 billion, according to the United Nations.
Efforts to curb internet shutdowns
The frequency and duration of internet shutdowns are increasing, experts say. But so are efforts to document and circumvent shutdowns.
These efforts are largely a result of technological advances that can provide alternative internet connections through tools like virtual private networks and monitoring platforms that record internet manipulation and surveillance.
Technology companies and governments are also working to combat internet shutdowns.
Google, for example, took steps to boost its connectivity in Iran last month after protesters were faced with widespread shutdowns.
The efforts followed the relaxing of sanctions by the United States to allow more online communication to flow into Iran.
Civil society, tech companies and telcos, governments and international institutions must come together and put an end to authorities’ hitting the kill switch”— Felicia Anthonio, Access Now’s #KeepItOn campaign manager
Moreover, as noted in a recent United Nations report, there is a push to develop international frameworks to better document internet shutdowns and provide legal recourse for human rights infringements that occur as a result.
Such efforts also include creating systems that allow for more transparency between governments and internet service providers—and give private companies more legal support to resist shutdown and manipulation requests.
“Under international law, governments have an obligation to ensure that any restrictions to information online are provided by law, are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific threat, and are in the public interest,” Brown explained, adding that governments should “never use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns.”