New report brings attention to threat of internet shutdowns

New report brings attention to threat of internet shutdowns
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State actors across the world are increasingly resorting to shutting down access to the internet, according to a new report out Wednesday.

The groups behind the report — the digital rights nonprofit Access Now and Google’s research unit Jigsaw — hope it will help bring attention to what they call a growing human rights threat.

“We wanted to share this research in part because this has become a worryingly common occurrence across the world,” Dan Keyserling, chief operating officer at Jigsaw, told The Hill.

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Between 2011, when the Egyptian government famously closed off access to the web for nearly the whole country, and 2019 intentional disruptions grew from a handful to 213 recorded cases, according to Access Now. While cases of internet shutdowns dipped to 155 in 2020, their combined duration rose 49 percent.

Access Now documented 50 internet shutdowns across 21 countries in the first five months of 2021.

Governments choose to disrupt access to apps, individual sites or the whole web for a variety of reasons, including perceived national security risks and stopping the spread of misinformation.

Regardless of the efficacy of shutdowns to address concerns like terrorist attacks, they have serious material effects.

They affect people’s ability to communicate and get information, which is especially crucial given that shutdowns are often happening in places that are going through conflict or other social upheavals, according to Access Now fellow Marianne Díaz Hernández.

“The impact is very dire, not only in the material ability to sustain life, but also in people's social mental well being: we’re talking about ‘how do I communicate with my friends’, ‘how do I communicate with my family,’ ” Díaz Hernández, a Venezuelan lawyer living in Chile, added. “It is a massive human rights violation.”

A stark example of that impact was seen last year when nearly 900,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, were unable to access the web through their phones to learn about how to protect themselves as COVID-19 swept through their camp.

“There were reports of a lot of misinformation and rumors kind of scaring people about the virus, all kinds of information that they couldn't verify because they didn't have access to information and access to the external world,” Felicia Anthonio, who works with Díaz Hernández on Access Now’s #KeepItOn campaign, explained.

Shutdowns can also be devastating for local economies as changes of production break down and money processors freeze. Researchers have estimated that ongoing disruptions in Myanmar have cost the country $2.5 billion this year.

The report also notes that shutdowns can be utilized to silence government opposition groups, often hamstring education systems and risk throwing health care into disarray.

Disruptions can take a series of forms detailed in the report, from ISP throttling to IP blocking to domain name system interference.

And all of those kinds of shutdowns have different potential fixes. Access Now encourages people at risk of disruptions to download virtual private networks, develop mesh networks and plan alternative communication methods.

Very few of those individual fixes can deal with total access blackouts though. Access Now and the other over 240 organizations in the #KeepItOn campaign are also pushing for international bodies to get involved and the adoption of laws protecting networks from governments.