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Wondering how some countries deal with problems such as a
brewing pandemic? For some, the answer is do everything they can to keep the
internet from letting the information out. In fact, it doesn’t even take a pandemic: Last
year, 33 countries across the globe had a hand in shutting down internet access
213 times for their citizens in some fashion. That’s up from 25 countries in
2018. It cost a lot of money (an estimated $8 billion lost to the global
economy, as it was pre-COVID-19). Naturally, the shutdowns didn’t solve
any problems … except for those in power.

The info comes from a report via non-profit human rights
group Access Now called #KeepItOn,
which attempts to quantify the  amount of
digital darkness generated by such incidents. They pulled info from news
reports, personal stories, and technical measurements from internet freedom
watchdog NetBlocks  to be as comprehensive as possible but
acknowledge that the issues were probably worse than they can convey. VPN vendor Surfshark provided
the info to PCMag.

How are countries stymying a network meant to survive major
outages? The report says they “are deliberately filtering keywords, throttling the internet,
blocking apps, or even cutting access to the web.” The report does a
deep dive into the filtering techniques used in
the report
. It can do that
because for many countries, it’s
legal for the government to order ISPs to curb services or block sites. In 2019, 63.64 percent of the shutdowns
impacted both mobile and wired-broadband networks; 31.58 percent were mobile
only. Of course, blocking social media and chat services such as WhatsApp and Telegram
are also popular with Big Brother.

The number-one offender is India, with 121 internet disruptions in 2019 alone. That’s 10 times worse than the
next-worse country, which happens to be Venezuela. India’s blackouts weren’t nationwide but used regionally.

The reasons for blocking internet access differ only slightly. In
Venezuela, it’s
about political discussion—or the hoped-for lack thereof. In India
and Iran, the internet is shuttered to stop  people from protesting or even voting. If countries can’t stop these things, they’ll at least throttle them. There are 14 intentional cases of
that in 2019, 10 of which had complete blackouts after.

Not all governments will admit they do these things—but most
do. Only 10 governments outright ignored requests to confirm they did so in
2019.

Government Acknowledgement

That’s because they feel they can justify the shutdown or
throttling as being for the “public good.” The top excuse used: to
fight fake news or hate speech. Which doesn’t match up with the actual cause
seen by most observers, which is usually to block protests.

Justification vs. Causes

Thankfully, Access Now has noticed that even in countries
such as Russia and India, court cases are underway to legally challenge
internet stoppages. Not a lot—only five in 2018, but another five were
added in the first half of 2019 alone. The Indian Supreme Court ruled in January of 2020 that the extensive shutdown in Kashmir was unconstitutional. So bit by bit, maybe things can improve. Not that the
ruling did much to change things in Kashmir. You can read about that in the whole
special section on India shutdowns in the #KeepItOn
report
.

Considering the role COVID-19 has played in 2020, it’ll be interesting to read next year’s report and see exactly which countries (besides China) tried to “contain the virus” (a.k.a. the bad news) via internet
blackouts.

Further Reading

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