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New research strongly indicates that enforced “digital darkness” or purposeful internet shutdowns by governments have become a part of the toolkit of states as they attempt to gain control over and compliance from their populations, especially when those populations are in states of dissent. Recent research firmly frames internet shutdowns as “authoritarian practice”, often to “intentionally restrict, constrain, or disrupt internet or electronic communications within a given geographic area or affecting a specific population in order to exert control over the spread of information”.
In 2021, in the immediate aftermath of the military coup in Sudan, internet and mobile phone services were suspended for some regions. The same year, Myanmar’s new military junta also suspended the internet in what was a clear attempt to control the flow of information and stop news about the situation from reaching the world. China remains a digital black hole for internet freedom with its censorship of social media during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other countries have used internet shutdowns during periods of regime consolidation, protest and crisis – Ethiopia, Russia, Kazakhstan, India, Zimbabwe and others. According to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2022 report, “More than three-quarters of the world’s internet users now live in countries where authorities punish people for exercising their right to free expression online.”
Why should we be concerned about these global trends?
First, access to the internet is now widely recognised in liberal democracies as an enabler of human rights because digital spaces have become a primary avenue for free speech and expression.
Second, the internet offers avenues for citizens to express their dissent. When a state controls the internet, it controls opinion and perception. When it shuts down the internet, it shuts down opinion.
Third, citizens in many countries now use social media platforms to solve collective action problems when they are mobilising peacefully; shutting down the internet can affect democratic mobilisation.
Fourth, internet shutdowns often occur on a spectrum from targeted banning of some websites and social media applications, to complete digital blackout for a region. The inherent unpredictability of such measures and the length of time they are enforced have been reported to have psychological effects on a population.
Fifth, there are economic consequences to internet shutdowns. An ICRIER report from 2018 states “16315 hours of Internet shutdown in India cost the economy approximately $3.04 billion during the period 2012 to 2017.”
Finally, in some countries, internet shutdowns can take the form of a cover for the continuance of human rights violations. Balochistan in Pakistan and Xinjiang province of China have both experienced digital darkness which has meant that people could not report violations against them to the world.
From just 3 in 2012 to 690 in 2022
With over 690 #Internetshutdowns till 2022 #India has kept it's place as the global leader in Internet Shutdowns.https://t.co/QUo73tBVq7#keepiton #ShutDown #howitstarted #DidYouKnow pic.twitter.com/cJUJDmcOyf
— sflc.in (@SFLCin) December 23, 2022
The Indian blackout
India now has the onerous distinction of being the country with the world’s largest number of internet shutdowns in each of the last five years. This one country has imposed 58% of the total number of shutdowns documented since 2016. In 2022, Access Now and #KeepItOn coalition documented 84 shutdowns in India. New Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) has documented 701 shutdowns since 2012. The most recent multi-day shutdown began on 19 March 2023, in the state of Punjab during a state-wide manhunt for Amritpal Singh Sandhu, a separatist preacher.
Such shutdowns have become a bad governance habit. They also affect businesses and the business of governance and administration. The Indian government has made a massive push towards Digital India which aims at empowering people through digital access and inclusion, and building a knowledge-based economy. Internet shutdowns directly contradict this policy measure because shutdowns are geared towards exclusion, especially when they are prolonged. For instance, parts of Jammu and Kashmir had low to no access to the internet for 552 days between 4 August 2019 and 6 February 2021. Since part of this period coincided with the pandemic, this also meant that doctors there had limited access to crucial information about the spread of the coronavirus.
Internet shutdowns in India are often presented as state-level law and order measures to curb potential situations of crowd violence. However, in many cases, they have been used to implement controversial policies. Research shows that Indian states where the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power tend to see more internet shutdowns, even as the orders for shutdowns are technically issued by supposedly apolitical civil servants. Out of 637 districts (excluding Jammu and Kashmir) that experienced a shutdown between 2012 and 2020, 501 were in BJP-ruled states.
The study also points out that there has never been a national-level internet shutdown in India; most focus on mobile network internet and tend to be restricted to particular states and regions. This is primarily because law and order is a state subject in India and the related decision-making lies with local state authorities. In contrast, in countries like Myanmar, the military junta imposed a near-total shutdown on some days in 2021, and later at specific times every day when regime consolidation was under way.
Governments often shut down access to certain sites, throttle online traffic, or shut down the internet completely with one common goal: to silence activists, journalists, and ordinary citizens.
This usually happens during key national events or times of political conflict. pic.twitter.com/OZcTx6QAgJ
— Access Now (@accessnow) April 28, 2022
The fight to control our digital spaces
What does all this tell us about the emerging relationship between governments and digital society today?
The digital domain is now a space where state and citizens frequently interact. This is certainly true when we look at the case of India, with its increasing digitisation of state services and how party leaders interact with citizens online. All major political parties now have information technology (IT) cells to deploy social media to amplify their narrative and challenge their opposition. No IT cell is as effective as the BJP’s, which sets its narrative and mobilises supporters nationally.
This new digital ecosystem is unfortunately also used to rally political protestors and vigilante groups who convey an imminent threat of violence. Online spaces have proven to be very effective in increasing levels of political polarisation, manifested through tactics like dog whistles against minority groups and orchestrated hate speech campaigns that convert online violence into offline, real-world violence. To put it bluntly, law enforcement authorities are now often confused by which social media posts by politicians or citizens are going to cause unrest, tension and even violence.
In this scenario, an internet shutdown becomes a dubious control valve as well as a powerful authoritarian excuse. Research on communal violence in India often lists rumours as a reason for riots, and on social media, such rumours are often weaponised. Authorities make the case that internet shutdowns can dissipate societal tensions by controlling the spread of rumours and hate speech, found often on social media messaging services like WhatsApp. The presence of online violence, often stoked by those in power, becomes an excuse for further authoritarian abuse of our digital spaces.
The frequency of shutdowns in India has not gone unnoticed or unchallenged. In fact, in a landmark 2020 case, the Indian Supreme Court confirmed that the internet was crucial to freedom of speech and expression and sought accountability on orders restricting internet access – saying these could be subject to judicial review, they should align with the Constitution's proportionality standard, and should be made public. Similarly, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communications and IT gave a 2021 report demanding more accountability against misuse of the digital domain and reviewing the legality of shutdowns.
Many countries are following a similar path. Turkey tightened state control of the internet in 2014 with a law that allowed it to block websites without a court order, supposedly for national security reasons. After the earthquake there this year, access to Twitter was temporarily suspended to ostensibly check disinformation. However, critics believe that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has expanded control of the media and the internet to drown out criticism of his government. Similarly, Ethiopia banned the internet in Tigray for over two years from 2020 during a civil war. Pakistan implemented an internet shutdown in Gwadar, Balochistan, in December 2022 to quell mass demonstrations after police arrested members and leaders of the Haq Do Tehreek Gwadar movement. Also last year, Sri Lanka blocked social media platforms during protests against the declaration of a national emergency.
This slippery slope of easy authoritarianism can best be seen in the case of Mauritania, which implemented an almost complete internet shutdown after the 2019 contested presidential election. It habitually blocks the internet during national exams, and in March, again executed a national digital shutdown when four prisoners escaped from a jail.
Tightening control of the internet is now an indicator of a country slouching towards digital authoritarianism. There is always some legal cover of national security or law and order concerns. Whoever controls digital spaces controls much of public narrative, and governments everywhere are jostling to dominate this position. Last year, Access Now reported the highest number of internet shutdowns ever recorded across countries.
A limited case can be made that internet shutdowns can help regulate tense situations or stop rumours and disinformation from fuelling offline violence. But their increasing and unchecked use is often being now used to prop up states’ optics, invisibilise and silence criticism and peaceful protests, and ultimately shield themselves as they control our voices in a democracy.
Cover image used with permission: "Internet shutdown in Iran" by Bartek Kiełbowicz.