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22 November 2021updated 17 Nov 2021 8:58am

When the internet goes dark

How states are weaponising digital shutdowns to stifle dissent

By Samir Jeraj

The shutdown began for journalist Shams Irfan on 16 October 2019. Irfan lives in Pampore, a town known for growing saffron and being near to Srinagar, the traditional summer capital of the Indian-administered territory of Jammu and Kashmir, which is part of the wider Kashmir region. A few days before, there had been a gun battle between Kashmiri rebels and Indian security forces in which two rebels died, he says. “As it is a norm now, if there is a gunfight in any area, the first thing that is shut is the internet.” Usually, service is fully restored in around three days, but this time that did not happen.

“I started noticing a pattern; it was not shut randomly,” Irfan continues. The internet was down from 7.30am to 11am and then from 2.30pm to 10.30pm. He believes it is a “proper curtailment plan”. During earlier internet shutdowns there was usually a reason given by the authorities, he says, but this current pattern has left even journalists like him “clueless”. “What I came to know is that the same pattern is followed in many other areas across Kashmir,” he says.

As of October this year, there have been 317 internet shutdowns in Kashmir since 2012, part of 548 across India in the same period, contributing to a collapse in media freedoms. Governments are increasingly turning to internet shutdowns to control the spread of information often connected to political instability. The estimated cost to the global economy was $8bn in 2019.

Shutdowns are also becoming more sophisticated and targeted. “No longer does a regime have to plunge a whole nation into darkness – it can lock onto a certain group of people it determines as a threat and disconnect them from each other and the rest of the world,” says Felicia Anthonio, a campaigner at Access Now, a digital rights NGO.

Access Now is also tracking a rise in the length of internet shutdowns. In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, where there is a separatist conflict, there has been an internet shutdown since 4 November 2020. This has made it more difficult for journalists and human rights activists to document war crimes or for ordinary people to carry on their lives.

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“You see this increasing confidence [of] countries with recurring internet shutdowns and it seems to reflect the complex geopolitical situation,” says Iginio Gagliardone, associate professor in Media and Communication at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he explains, there was more of a sense that infringing on internet freedom would risk some form of sanction from the international community. However, by 2005 Ethiopia could claim its two-year shutdown of SMS texting services was due to “technical problems”.

There are several ways that governments can block internet use, explains Hanna Kreitem, technical expert, Middle East at the Internet Society, a global non-profit organisation working to promote an open, globally connected and secure internet. From limiting access speed, particular services and websites in places as small as a few streets or an organisation, through to a full blackout across a country, as happened in Egypt in 2011, these techniques have been in use for “many, many years”, according to Kreitem, and are a continuation of pre-internet restrictions to information.

“Nowadays we are seeing more targeted shutdowns,” he continues, limiting services in specific regions – for example, preventing protesters in an area live-streaming on Facebook. This is enabled, he says, both by the willingness and acceptability of using blackouts and by advancements in technology, such as deep packet inspection (DPI), that allow specific websites to be blocked.

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“Internet service providers have no choice,” Gagliardone explains. Some of them are only notified of a shutdown by a call direct to the CEO, and while most do push back by asking for an official order, governments can mobilise national security laws in particular to make it happen or else the providers will lose their licence to operate. “There is very little room for negotiation,” he adds.

But there are ways to counter internet shutdowns. Access Now believes that awareness-raising is important along with monitoring and understanding the impact on human rights. The group has also used strategic litigation to challenge government decisions to impose shutdowns in Zambia, Togo, Indonesia and Sudan.

“Circumvention tools are catching up with many of the techniques that are used to limit access,” says Kreitem, but there is still no tool that can protect against a full blackout. VSAT (very small aperture terminal) data transmission technologies might be able to do this, but are quite expensive and still quite limited, so are only going to be used by the general public. Kreitem hopes that, at some point, decision-makers will realise that cutting off the internet is an ineffective tool and focus on better ways to solve their problems.

Back in Kashmir, Irfan has adjusted to the new normal. The regular shutdowns disrupted his work routine and access to information, so he changed his sleep pattern and regularly takes shuttles to areas such as Srinagar city, where there is a better chance of internet access, to read emails, send a single WhatsApp message or just to find out what is happening elsewhere. Just recently, he has invested in his own means of circumventing the shutdowns, but points out that this type of technology is expensive and not available to everyone.

“We now live in a world where the internet has ceased to be a luxury but a necessity for everyone, be it a journalist or a small trader or a shop owner or a student,” Irfan says. “But such shutdowns during peak working hours are pushing us back to the dark ages.”

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