Governments around the world shut down Internet access more than fifty times in 2016, Lyndal Rowlands reported for the Inter Press Service (IPS) in December of that year. Around the world, governments shutting down Internet access limited freedom of speech, swayed elections, and damaged economies. “In the worst cases,” Rowlands wrote, “Internet shutdowns have been associated with human rights violations,” as happened in Ethiopia and Uganda. The IPS report quoted Deji Olukotun, a senior manager at digital rights organization Access Now: “What we have found is that Internet shutdowns go hand in hand with atrocities.”
As Kevin Collier reported for Vocativ, Access Now documented fifty-three instances in 2016 in which national governments shut down the Internet for all or part of a country, “throttled” access speeds to make the Internet essentially unusable, or blocked specific communication methods. These fifty-three instances represent a sharp uptick in government shutdowns of the Internet, following on from the fifteen shutdowns identified by Access Now in 2015. As Collier noted, Access Now uses a “conservative metric,” counting “repeated, similar outages”—like those which occurred during Gabon’s widely criticized Internet “curfew”—as a single instance. (The Vocativ report included a dynamic map chart, designed by Kaitlyn Kelly, that vividly depicts Internet shutdowns around the world, month by month for all of 2016, as documented by Access Now.)
Many countries intentionally blacked out Internet access during elections and to quell protest. Not only do these shutdowns restrict freedom of speech, they also hurt economies around the world. TechCrunch, IPS, and other independent news organizations reported that a Brookings Institution study found that Internet shutdowns cost countries $2.4 billion between July 2015 and June 2016. The biggest losses were in India (an estimated $968 million), Saudi Arabia ($465 million), and Morocco ($320 million). The author of the Brookings study, Darrell West, cautioned that the figures are only estimates, but that the actual economic costs are likely to be even higher. “The $2.4 billion figure is a conservative estimate that likely understates the actual economic damage,” West wrote, because it does not include “lost tax revenues associated with blocked digital access, impact on worker productivity, barriers to business expansion connected with these shutdowns, or the loss of investor, consumer, and business confidence resulting from such disruptions.” Overall, the Brookings study noted, “As long as political authorities continue to disrupt internet activity, it will be difficult for impacted nations to reap the full benefits of the digital economy.”
As Olukotun, the Access Now manager, told IPS, one way to stop government shutdowns is for Internet providers to resist government demands. “Telecommunications companies can push back on government orders, or at least document them to show what’s been happening, to at least have a paper trail,” Olukotun observed. He also called on international organizations—including the International Telecommunications Union, which is the UN agency for information and communication technologies—to issue statements in response to specific incidents.
On July 1, 2016, in a nonbinding resolution signed by more than seventy countries, the UN Human Rights Council lauded the Internet’s “great potential to accelerate human progress,” and it condemned “measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online.” According to the resolution, “the exercise of human rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression, on the Internet is an issue of increasing interest and importance.”
Yet, as Azad Essa reported for Al Jazeera in May 2017, “understanding what this means for internet users can be difficult.” For the sixth straight year Freedom House, a US-based freedom of expression watchdog, found that Internet freedom around the world had declined, Essa reported. Freedom House found that two-thirds of the world’s Internet users “live in countries where criticism of the government, military, or ruling family [is] subject to censorship.” According to their “Freedom on the Net 2016” report, thirty-four of the sixty-five countries studied have been “on a negative trajectory” since June 2015, with the steepest declines in Uganda, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ecuador, and Libya. Freedom House documented new restrictions on messaging apps, social media users facing unprecedented penalties, governments censoring more diverse content, and security measures threatening free speech and advocacy—even as online activism “reaches new heights.” Underscoring the importance of online freedoms, Freedom House noted that in more than two-thirds of the countries studied, “internet-based activism has led to some sort of tangible outcome, from the defeat of a restrictive legislative proposal to the exposure of corruption through citizen journalism.”
The UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, told Al Jazeera that advocates of online rights “need to be constantly pushing for laws that protect this space and demand that governments meet their obligations in digital spaces just as in non-digital spaces.”
Corporate news coverage of Internet shutdowns tends to focus on specific countries, especially ones in Africa. For instance, in September 2016, CNN reported on the extraordinary Internet shutdown in Gabon. Although this coverage made passing reference to Access Now’s findings on Internet disruptions around the world, it focused on the specific details of the shutdown in Gabon, which included Internet “curfews” and the government’s total blocking of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. A February 2017 New York Times report focused on Internet shutdowns in Cameroon, Gambia, and the Republic of Congo. This report also cited the Brookings Institution report on the economic costs of shutdowns. However, corporate coverage tends not to address the larger, global scope of Internet shutdowns—and, unlike independent news coverage, these reports tend not to address how Internet providers might resist government demands.
Devin Coldewey, “Study Estimates Cost of Last Year’s Internet Shutdowns at $2.4 Billion,” TechCrunch, October 24, 2016, https://techcrunch.com/2016/10/24/study-suggests-internet-shutdowns-may-cost-countries-billions/.
Kevin Collier, “Governments Loved to Shut Down the Internet in 2016—Here’s Where,” Vocativ, December 23, 2016, http://www.vocativ.com/386042/internet-access-shut-off-censorship/.
Lyndal Rowlands, “More Than 50 Internet Shutdowns in 2016,” Inter Press Service, December 30, 2016, http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/12/more-than-50-internet-shutdowns-in-2016/.
Azad Essa, “What Can the UN Do If Your Country Cuts the Internet?” Al Jazeera, May 8, 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/05/country-cuts-internet-170504064432840.html.
Student Researcher: Hugo Sousa (Citrus College)
Faculty Evaluator: Andy Lee Roth (Citrus College)