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Why you should be more concerned about internet shutdowns

Deliberate internet shutdowns enacted by governments around the world are increasing in frequency and sophistication, according to a recent report. The study, published by Google’s Jigsaw project with the digital rights nonprofit Access Now and the censorship measurement company Censored Planet, says internet shutdowns are growing “exponentially”: out of nearly 850 shutdowns documented over the last 10 years, 768 have happened since 2016. 

India’s government has shut off the internet more than any other—109 times in 2020 alone—and data shows that shutdowns are most common around elections and times of potential civil unrest, leading to claims that it has become a tactic to suppress dissent. But while they are becoming more prevalent, shutdowns are also getting more subtle, using tactics like throttling a URL to dramatically slow its function, blocking particular internet addresses, and restricting the use of mobile data. 

MIT Technology Review sat down with Dan Keyserling, the chief operating officer of Jigsaw, to discuss the growing phenomenon. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Dan Keyserling, chief operating officer of Jigsaw

Where did the research project come from?

Since its inception, Jigsaw and our predecessor organization, Google Ideas, have studied online censorship and efforts by governments around the world to curtail access to information. Knowing that it’s happening is among the first and most critical steps.

Especially for low-grade censorship tactics, it’s not always clear to the people who are experiencing them what’s happening. For example, throttling, which is the slowing down of certain internet sites to the point where they become unusable—from the point of view of the user, it could seem like technical difficulties.

We wanted to publish this report now because the problem is worsening. Internet shutdowns are becoming more frequent. More governments are experimenting with curtailing internet access as a tool for affecting the behavior of citizens.

The costs of internet shutdowns are arguably increasing both because governments are becoming more sophisticated about how they approach this, but also we’re living more of our lives online. 

Then we wanted to provide a call to action for what we think ought to be an international consensus against internet shutdowns. We’re encouraged by recent statements from the United Nations, among other multilateral organizations, condemning internet shutdowns and rightly calling them a violation of human rights. Just last month, a UN Special Rapporteur issued a fairly blunt statement describing how this problem is worsening and why it poses a threat to all member nations. 

Technically, and from a societal perspective, what is an internet shutdown?

“Internet shutdown” describes a category of activity to curtail access to information. I think when most people use the term, they’re referring to this total shutdown of the internet—which indeed we see, especially in certain countries over the last several years. But there is a spectrum of threats that are subtler but, in some ways, just as damaging as a total internet blackout. As this international consensus grows against complete internet shutdowns, we’re seeing an increase in this subtler, more targeted, and more low-grade shutting down and censorship.

“Our efforts to measure and monitor what’s going on in the world have to stay on pace with the efforts by which governments can restrict access.”

And what are the technical barriers to understanding these shutdowns?

Well, you can’t manage what you can’t measure, as the old saying goes. Essentially, it’s a challenge of figuring out what signals to monitor around the world in order to detect when something has been interrupted, and then being able to understand what those signals mean in real life. There are lots of technical challenges to that, partly because it’s a big world. There are lots of different points you can measure to determine whether certain sites are being blocked, bandwidth is being constrained, or platforms are being blocked.

And then, when you have all of this data, [the challenge is] structuring it and making sense of it such that you can detect when these things happen in real time and report that out confidently. There are organizations like Netblocks, Open Observatory of Network Interference, and Censored Planet that all do incredible work in this space, and they’re constantly expanding their capacity to measure and report on shutdowns all over the world. 

In addition to all of the technical problems, this remains a little bit of a cat-and-mouse game. Our efforts to measure and monitor and be transparent about what’s going on in the world have to stay on pace with the efforts to evolve the means by which governments can restrict access.

Take a situation like Afghanistan. There have been some reports of a shutdown in Panjshir Valley, but I don’t know how widely that is agreed upon. What does your research say about what might happen in Afghanistan? Why might the Taliban want to gain more control over the internet in a situation like this?

I hasten to add that I’m not an expert on Afghanistan. I have seen the same reporting that you have, describing internet shutdowns across the country. One was characterized as specifically preventing certain people and certain groups from rallying support and reaching outside of the borders. 

Any time you see a government—or a group, in the case of the Taliban—expressing autocratic, authoritarian, and repressive views, it follows that they might do what they say they want to do, which is restrict access to information and communication. I’m very concerned about the situation in Afghanistan. Making sure that people there have access to information, the ability to communicate, and the ability to get the news is essential. 

How sophisticated does somebody have to be to enact one of these shutdowns? Can anyone with a meaningful level of control over the internet infrastructure engage in these activities?

You’re right to point out that the way that shutdowns transpire often relates to how much control a government has over the telecommunications infrastructure in a given country. And that varies: it varies country by country, and it varies over time. 

One of the things that we’ve observed, and it’s been reported on well by others, is that a number of governments are considering laws that would increase their control over telecommunications infrastructure. That is part of three simultaneous trends. First, you have the increasing frequency of internet shutdowns. Second, you have the increased attention by governments to how they control telecommunications infrastructure in their countries. And you also see a recession of democracy around the world, and an increase in autocratic governments exerting power over civil society.

What is the real risk? 

It’s certainly more than an inconvenience. It’s a matter of life and death in some cases. It’s certainly a matter of livelihoods lost—of civil society being restricted, access to information being restricted, and freedom of expression being curtailed. I think as more people are living their lives online and as democratic institutions increasingly rely on the internet as a way to facilitate civic participation—to share news and information, for people to communicate with each other, and for people to organize—the risk of a government shutting down the internet carries increasing costs.

Global intentional internet shutdowns

Jan 2020 – May 2021

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