Why you should care
Because your basic human right of internet access could also be restricted.
Hours before India’s Home Minister Amit Shah announced the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special autonomy on Aug. 5, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi had snapped all telecommunication lines between the contested region of 7 million people and the outside world. More than a month later, much of that communications blockade remains in place.
But while that blackout has drawn global headlines, it’s far from unique. From Hong Kong to Sudan, Indonesia to Russia and, of course, India, governments are turning the internet tap off as a key weapon to preempt or curb protests that are increasingly organized via social media.
When protests spread out across Papua in late August against the arrest of more than 40 students, Indonesia switched off the internet, refusing to buckle under calls from global human rights groups to restore connectivity. The NetBlocks internet observatory confirmed last week that when protesters took to the streets of Moscow on Aug. 3, Russia enforced a targeted, unannounced internet shutdown in the country’s capital. Amid protests in Khartoum in June, Sudanese authorities cut off the internet nationwide.
One of the most profound manifestations of authoritarian tendencies is that governments try and control information flow.
Michael Kugelman, Wilson Center
And last week, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam suggested that she could turn to a partial or complete internet clampdown to control the protests she continues to face, even after she withdrew a controversial extradition bill. The number of internet shutdowns across the world is rising steeply — from 75 in 2016 to 196 in 2018, according to the nonprofit Access Now, which tracks international cyber censorship.
“It is a reflection of our times,” says Michael Kugelman, senior associate at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan policy forum. “The world is seeing an increase in authoritarian tendencies, and one of the most profound manifestations of authoritarian tendencies is that governments try and control information flow, if not suppress it.”
For sure, governments using internet crackdowns to make it harder for protesters to organize is in itself not a new phenomenon. In 2016, India suspended mobile internet services for 133 days in Kashmir after the army killed a militant leader. China’s online censors — often referred to as the “Great Firewall” — block all online content on the mainland that the Communist Party views as problematic. During the Arab Spring, Egypt suspended access to social media platforms that protesters were using to organize. And occasionally governments restrict internet access to prevent the spread of dangerous fake news — Sri Lanka took this approach following the Easter bombings earlier this year. “Sometimes it can be well-intentioned,” says Kugelman.
But what were isolated, often ham-handed efforts at controlling protests are now turning into a fast-spreading policy spanning not just more authoritarian regimes such as Russia under Vladimir Putin or Sudan under former dictator Omar al-Bashir, but also democracies and regions such as Hong Kong that have never — until now — had to face the threat of an internet crackdown. Indonesia’s information access is the most free in Southeast Asia, according to Freedom House.
What’s more, whether in Kashmir or Russia, the suspension of the internet is increasingly preemptive. Blackouts are getting stricter: In Kashmir this time, even landlines and most cable networks were suspended, though some connections have now been restored. And regimes have learned from the Arab Spring. Because Egypt only cut access to social media platforms, users turned to proxy addresses to access these sites. Now, governments are shutting down the entire internet — not just social media — so proxy addresses can’t be used. Asia and Africa are the worst affected — accounting for 96 percent of the recorded instances of internet cuts since 2016, according to Access Now.
Almost always, cyber blackouts are presented by governments as a necessary step to maintain law and order. In May 2019, the Indonesian government limited internet access after protests in Jakarta erupted following the declaration of presidential election results. But in reality, such curbs are invariably part of broader attacks on democratic rights of ordinary people in affected regions. “We have to dispel the notion that somehow shutting off the internet is a good way to preserve public order,” says Adrian Shahbaz, a research director at Freedom House. “If you speak with people on the ground, those are precisely the times when they need access to the internet, for more information, to gather the reality of what is happening on the ground and communicate with loved ones.”
At times, governments argue that they’re trying to minimize the spread of fake news in volatile situations, by limiting access to the internet. In Papua, for instance, Indonesian police have accused a human-rights lawyer and activist of inciting unrest and spreading fake news. “Governments around the world are using claims of ‘fake news’ to suppress dissent, eroding trust in the internet as well as the foundations of democracy,” Freedom House said in a 2018 report on “digital authoritarianism.”
Yet these crackdowns demonstrate just “how powerful the internet has become,” says Kugelman. And that centrality of the internet to the economy could on occasion help constrain the use of cyber blockades by overeager governments. Hong Kong’s association of internet service providers has warned Lam that limiting internet access could hurt the island’s economy.
But several governments actually believe that internet cuts are their best bet at controlling information, while others feel such crackdowns help in situations “where there is violence,” says Shahbaz. But, he adds, “Actually, it tends to make the situation worse.”