In a digital world where the lines between online and offline are disappearing, life without internet access is unimaginable. But the rise of internet shutdowns and online censorship during political instability is a trend that nobody can afford to ignore.
Our journey began with an ideological vision of a new future where technology united rather than divided global citizens in a brave new world without borders. However, humanity predictably failed to shake off conflicts and tensions between countries, which slowly saw the implementation of online boundaries, such as China's Great Firewall, which has been described as a digital iron curtain.
Flicking the internet kill switch as a form of control
A worrying trend that is becoming impossible to ignore is Governments citing national security during political instability as a justification for shutting down the internet. The move is often promoted as the best way to prevent the spreading of misinformation to help maintain public order and avoid violence in the streets. But in many cases, it's much about silencing critics of a regime.
A digital dictatorship can block websites, social media, and messaging apps. The so-called internet kill switch can take entire countries, towns, or regions offline for hours or even months. According to a study by Surfshark, a staggering 5.7 billion people across 76 countries have experienced a partial or total Internet shutdown since 2015. The company also recently reported that internet restrictions had impacted two billion citizens as digital censorship spreads worldwide.
The dramatic impact of internet shutdowns on people's lives and their fundamental human rights is causing widespread concern. The UN recently released a report urging leaders not to implement authoritarian measures due to the damaging effects on society. Yet, once again, these warnings have been largely ignored.
Two years ago, India, the world's largest democracy, famously flicked the kill switch on the internet in the name of public order. As a result, an estimated 451 million active Internet users were only given access to browse 300 websites approved by the government, while everything else was taken offline. More recently, newsfeeds have featured disturbing headlines from Iran, which continues to restrict access to Instagram, WhatsApp, and many areas of the internet that most of us take for granted.
How to stay online during an internet shutdown
A global recession, economic downturn, and rise in international tensions are exacerbating the trend of digital censorship. The bad news is that it's already too late to do anything about it when you find yourself in a shutdown situation. Maybe it's time to adopt a more proactive approach to the unthinkable by downloading anti-censorship apps or fallback solutions now.
Most users rely heavily on their smartphones and the local network operator that provides their data coverage. The first stage of an internet blackout usually consists of the operator being forced to shut down all connections to the internet. But suppose you are close to a neighboring country where the internet is still accessible. In that case, many users will have an international backup sim that will allow them to converse with friends or family located overseas and even receive money via mobile transfer solutions.
A search for the best VPN followed by developing your knowledge and understanding of how to avoid the dreaded VPN kill switch is widely seen as the first step towards protecting your connection to the world. However, it's important to remember that this setup does not protect your privacy and anonymity online. You will also need a Tor Browser to complement your VPN connection.
Governments will often criminalize the production, sale, and distribution of VPNs to prevent citizens from choosing these options. State media also promotes the notion that VPN users are nefarious characters with something to hide. For these reasons, many activists turn to Mesh networks that enable communication using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi technology to create a chain of devices capable of sending messages to others nearby.
In the last two years, there have been many examples of how businesses and governments can weaponize money and shut down dissent. But how did we get here? Everything from China's Great Firewall to the coronavirus has been credited with accelerating global censorship and surveillance to modify or control the behavior of its citizens.
The alarming rise in draconian internet shutdowns could pave the way to a digitally divided splinternet where your location will determine your access to free information. Data transportation could also quickly become incredibly complex for businesses, with each region playing by a different set of rules. But it's not all doom and gloom.
The internet has empowered citizens of the world to express themselves, communicate and work in distributed teams for an employer on the other side of the world. With almost every aspect of our lives, from work to home banking, depending on a connection to the internet, the genie is out of the bottle. Therefore, reducing our reliance on the internet is no longer realistic. However, users can enhance their resilience against any threat of digital dictatorship.
Although internet shutdowns have long been associated with fighting dissent and restricting protests in developing nations, a global economic crisis could bring the internet kill switch closer to your home than you might think. The bigger question is how prepared you will be if you were to lose access to the internet.
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