Web blackouts used as weapons by ‘bad’ regimes

In Western countries, losing access to the internet usually means nothing more than a loss of convenience or money. But in less fortunate parts of the world, restricted access to the web is being used by regimes to control populations or even as a cloak for further human rights abuses.

Access Now and #KeepItOn, a coalition group campaigning for free internet access worldwide, have released their report for 2021, which found that governments across the globe used internet blackouts to silence protesters, conceal deadly crackdowns, and even prevent cheating at exams.

All in all, 182 shutdowns were recorded, most of them across Asia and Africa. India had by far the largest number, with 106 blackouts monitored by #KeepItOn, although the longest single duration went to its neighbor Pakistan – which kept the web dark in its federally administered tribal region for more than four years until finally rescinding the policy in December.

In that case, the government used a border conflict with Afghanistan to justify taking away access to the internet from 4.5 million people, but as the authors of the report point out: “Regardless of the context or rationale, internet shutdowns are an attack on human rights. They are never a sign of a healthy democracy or effective governance.”

India also chose to put the muzzle on border territories, aiming most of its blackouts at the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir. Citing “counterterrorism” concerns, the government imposed an astonishing 85 blackouts on the area, leaving it in a state of near-total weblessness for the year.

Compound dangers

The dangers of mass internet restrictions are multiple and often compound each other, according to the report. “Network disruptions can serve to cloak human rights abuses during crises, including war crimes and acts of genocide,” it said.

“They obstruct humanitarian aid, and hinder journalism and the documentation of rights violations. They also leave people who have loved ones in these conflict zones in fear, unable to reach family and friends or get them to safety.”

The report cited as an example Myanmar, where blackouts were used to stifle reporting of air strikes on civilians, destruction of homes, and the murder of people including children.

Another technique employed by unscrupulous governments around the world is that of “throttling,” when access to social media platforms such as Twitter is compromised but not restricted outright. Often this appears to be nothing more than slow internet access – which can be a common problem in such regions – allowing authoritarian regimes plausible deniability.

“Throttling is the act of artificially restricting, but not stopping, the flow of data through a communications network,” said the report. “Throttling makes it appear as though internet access or a platform or service is available, but the level of interference is enough to render the service or resource effectively useless.”

One high-profile example of this was when Russia slowed down access to more than 40,000 domains containing Twitter’s abbreviated name (“t.co”), but a more bizarre incidence came in Algeria – which deployed the tactic against students, who it feared might otherwise use the internet to cheat on their national exams.

Nor was this the only case of the North African country using a sledgehammer to crack a nut in its self-professed campaign against cheating, with the report describing it as a “lead perpetrator” of exam-related blackouts in the five years to 2021.

“Millions of people in Algeria have suffered as a result, especially those whose work and livelihoods rely on social media and the internet,” it said, adding that in 2020 alone the country lost $388 million due to the blackouts.

Dark purposes

But elsewhere, internet takedowns have been used for far darker purposes. In Sudan, the ouster of Omar al-Bashir’s government in April 2019 was followed by a total blackout three months later. During this time, its dictatorial junta is believed to have murdered at least a hundred civilians and raped more than seventy women.

It followed this up by shutting down the internet five times last year, as the military seized power from a transition government in a coup, killing and injuring more civilians when they took to the streets to protest.

Iran has a similar track record. Believed to have killed more than 300 civilians during a week-long blackout in 2019, it appeared to repeat the tactic last year, when it powered down mobile networks in regions heavily dependent on cellphones for internet access – allegedly to hide extrajudicial killings including the murder of ten unarmed civilians in February.

In terms of specific targeting, the range of imposed blackouts varied, from a single city, county, or even village deemed troublesome by authorities, to whole provinces or regions. More often than not, however, the motive has remained much the same regardless of scale: to silence regime critics.

“The global COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted the severity of disconnecting people from the internet when it is used for access to education, work, banking, culture, and entertainment, as well as basic communication in daily life,” said the report. “Ignore internet shutdowns at your peril.”

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