“Imagine you’re on a flight. You don’t know when you will arrive. You’re perpetually stuck in the air until the pilot decides to land.” That’s how Berhan Taye from Ethiopia describes the strange limbo of an internet shutdown. She leads the #KeepItOn campaign of Access Now, which brings together a coalition of organizations to keep the internet open and accessible.
Around the world, internet shutdowns are on the rise. In 2018, Access Now documented 188 shutdowns around the world. That’s more than double what they counted in 2016. Most shutdowns occurred in Africa and Asia, with India being the worst offender.
Official justifications range from cracking down on terrorism, social unrest or false political rumors, to the curbing of cheating during school exams. Other times, authorities simply deny a shutdown or offer no explanation at all. Each case is different, but every time the internet is shut down, peoples’ rights are denied. In Cameroon, the government completely blocked Anglophone regions from accessing social media for 230 days. In Chad, citizens have not been able to freely access Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter for nearly a year. Blocking like this is another way that many governments have been trying to subtly censor access to information without attracting the attention of a full network shutdown.
Recently, Taye says, governments, police and local authorities have become more tactical about how they block people from getting online, moving from internet shutdowns to slowdowns to further obscure who is responsible.
Q: What is it like to experience an internet shutdown?
A: With #KeepItOn we’ve begun collecting and sharing more personal stories of shutdown experiences because people have a hard time understanding the human impact. Internet shutdowns don’t just happen on a random Tuesday. They tend to happen in the context of election violence, protests, or emergencies. That’s one reason it can be such a traumatic experience. We’ve heard from people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who were unable to verify if family members were alive. We also know of cases in Cameroon where doctors working with the World Health Organization were providing emergency medical advice to patients over WhatsApp. With no internet, there was suddenly no way for them to administer care.
In shutdowns, people’s lives are more than just inconvenienced at work, in school, and at home. Their lives can be endangered. In Pakistan, a woman was struck down in traffic by a hit-and-run driver. She tried to call emergency services but the whole mobile network was down. She passed out and almost bled to death. Can you imagine what that must feel like?
Q: How are authorities getting smarter about shutting down the internet?
A: If we take the example of Ethiopia, where I am from — the first time they shut down the internet, it was like they didn’t know what they were doing. They took us off the grid completely. That was extreme, and the economic cost was huge. So the next time they said, ‘OK, we’re just going to shut down mobile data’ since shutting down broadband affects businesses more.
Governments also realize that they can limit a shutdown to a specific city or region now. This is very common in Pakistan and India. It’s rare to see a national outage anywhere in the world. And when it’s just a neighborhood or small city that is affected, it’s harder to document.
Making shutdowns harder to document seems to be the main reason many governments are now opting to simply slow down the internet. It can be slow to the point where it can take a whole day to upload one photo to Twitter, but still be really hard to figure out whether someone is tampering with the internet. For instance in Togo or Cameroon, in countries that don’t have the best infrastructure, it might just be that your bandwidth is having a bad day.
For the global community of technologists working to figure out how to spot, measure and analyze shutdowns, slowdowns are an especially big challenge. We can often use data from the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) to confirm if a website is blocked or a shutdown took place, but it’s much harder to verify if a deliberate slowdown is happening.
Q: What needs to happen to address these problems?
A: What keeps me up at night, are the shutdowns we are not able to document or understand why happen. Internet shutdowns and human rights violations go hand in hand. In some contexts when we’re unable to document shutdowns, egregious human rights violations have happened. That’s why we also need more tech companies to come on board with detection and documentation efforts. Google and Facebook are the first ones to know when the internet goes down because practically everyone uses their services. I feel they could be more open about sharing data about internet interruptions with us, and with people around the world.