Internet Blackouts & What They Mean
As you may already know by now, Sudan had an internet blackout a couple of months ago that has gained global attention. However, this situation, as alarming as it sounds, is not unique as shutdowns are on the rise all over the globe.
For the last couple of months, Sudan has been cut off from the internet. The source of the media blackout originated from a series of intermittent disruptions during months of protests against ex-president Omar Al-Bashir’s 30-year rule. Although Al-Bashir was eventually toppled in April, the protests did not end. Demonstrators demanded that the Transitional Military Council (TMC) give way to a civilian-led government.
On June 3rd, all mobile access to internet was cut after security forces violently diffused a protest camp in Khartoum, the capital of South Sudan. About a week later, landline access was also shut down after reports of killings, rapes and other abuses began to surface. The result? A severing of the flow of information from Sudan to the world.
What was supposed to be a reliable source of information is now being limited in more ways than before. As more and more people use the internet for everything from communicating to banking, authorities and those in power are increasingly turning it off.
So, what does it mean to experience an internet blackout today? In this blog, we will explain why media blackouts occur and the crippling effects of such government shutdowns.
What is an Internet Blackout?
Before we go on, we should define what an internet blackout is. A blackout occurs when a country’s internet access is completely shut off, preventing its residents from getting online. Some reasons for an internet blackout are cyberattacks or undersea cable damage; however, the most increasingly common cause is that higher authorities choose to cut access.
Internet blackouts caused by authorities date as far back as 2005 but this practice is becoming more common after Egypt’s week-long government-imposed blackout during its uprising in 2011.
Why do Authorities Shut Down the Internet?
Authorities and those in power may see the free flow of information online as a threat, especially in countries where traditional media is tightly controlled. Media blackouts is one of many tools they use to control their citizens and the narrative of an event that is happening. Often times, authorities justify the blackouts by highlighting the need for national security and expressing public interest concerns.
Some examples of social media blackouts include Sri Lanka, in which all media was temporarily blocked following the Easter Sunday bombings. This was done to prevent the “spread of rumors.” Internet access has also been cut in some African countries during recent elections in an attempt to limit the influence of social media on voting and poll results.
According to Alp Toker, Executive Director of Netblocks (an NGO monitoring internet censorship), these “shutdowns are used to cover up violations of human rights, including alleged reports of killings.”
It is no coincidence that there is an overlap between blackouts and anti-government protests; media blocks are most definitely being used to silence dissent and make it more difficult for citizens to effectively protest. Authorities in countries such as Iraq and Algeria have also imposed blackouts during nation-wide exams, where the internet was blocked for as long as four consecutive days. Although these blackouts were justified as a means to prevent students from cheating, authorities did not so much as acknowledge the blackout.
How is it Done?
At this point in the blog, you probably want ‘the government shutdown’ explained in terms of how exactly it’s done. Disrupting the internet is not as complicated as you may think. Authorities order internet service providers (ISPs) to limit access for their subscribers. Considering the fact that most ISPs are state-owned, they are usually compliant. However, there are some that have reportedly been held at gunpoint and forced to switch off all media.
Complete blackouts aside, there are also content blocks and bandwidth throttling that can be used to limit access to the internet. Content blocks are used to shut down access to certain websites such as social media pages or Wikipedia, to name a few. China implemented this in early June before its 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests by blocking access to the sites of international news organizations such as CNNand Reuters.
Bandwidth throttling is more subtle in that the connection is made very weak, rendering the internet unusable. With that said, throttling and partial restrictions on services can be used to cover up mass censorship. Both content blocks and bandwidth throttling usually occur before a complete internet blackout.
Is There a Way Around it?
The most common way you can bypass some internet restrictions is through a virtual private network or VPN. A VPN hides the user’s location, making it appear as if they are in another country.
Authorities may choose to block VPNs but this rarely happens due to the backlash they would receive from foreign diplomats and companies that use them. When it comes to a complete blackout, however, accessing the internet is almost impossible.
What are the Consequences of Blackouts?
The consequences of government-imposed shutdowns are catastrophic, considering that everyone’s lives are becoming more entwined with the online world. We outline the effects that these blackouts have below:
Political: Stopping the flow of information in and out of a country makes it difficult to mobilize the international community because any report of atrocities is automatically doubted. The recent internet blackout in Sudan has inhibited efforts by rights activists and journalists to confirm the death toll after the June 3rd crackdown. The lack of social media access means protesters can’t easily organize mass rallies or voice their opinions.
However, blackouts can sometimes draw attention to the very issue that authorities try to conceal in the first place. For example, Sudan’s large diaspora community took to digital media to criticize the blackout and support protesters. Celebrities such as model Halima Aden and international rights groups picked up on the messages that put the Sudanese crisis in the spotlight.
Economic: An internet downage can cause serious damage to a country’s economy by limiting people’s access to banking and preventing interactions between businesses. According to Dawit Bekele, Africa bureau director at the Internet Society (an NGO focused on internet policy), blackouts deter much needed investment. He goes on to state that “investors need the internet to come to a country, when they see that a government is shutting down the internet, they think twice before going there.”
The four-day shutdown last week in Ethiopia alone cost the country $17 million. Moreover, according to the Brookings Institution, the global economy lost $2.4 billion due to internet shutdowns between 2015 to 2016.
Social: An internet blackout can have negative effects on people’s daily lives and even come down to a matter of life and death. According to Toker, they’ve “tracked cases where women have miscarried because they couldn't get to hospital on time during shutdowns.” Moreover, people have lost friends and family because they weren’t able to get in touch due to the mayhem these acts of censorship have caused.
Bekele informed Al Jazeera that during a blackout in his home country of Ethiopia, he was unable to bring medicine into the country for a friend due to the lack of communication to confirm the prescription. Moreover, Sudanese citizens were unable to get any security alerts on roadblocks or makeshift medical centers, putting many lives in risk.
Although they cause damage and have a patchy success rate, internet blackouts imposed by the government and authorities show no signs of losing in popularity. The United Nations named internet access a human right in 2016 and strives to send monitors to countries while raising awareness of internet restrictions. However, the UN has little power to prevent higher authorities from forcing blackouts. In 2018 alone, there were 188 shutdowns, according to Access Now, a monitoring group. This is an alarming number compared to previous statistics, 108 and 75 in 2017 and 2016 respectively.
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