From Myanmar to Sudan, autocratic regimes have weaponised internet shutdowns. Time to fight back.
Internet censorship is nearly as old as the internet itself. While much of the theorizing about the early internet viewed it as a free and open space for the exchange of new ideas, a number of governments had different ideas about its potential.
While China is well-known for its sophisticated internet censorship apparatus, several governments across the Middle East and North Africa — including Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Syria—were early adopters of certain censorship tactics such as keyword filtering and DNS tampering. Similar to China, these countries targeted a range of content, including sites that offered information about human rights violations, sex, and certain religions, as well as those that encouraged political opposition.
But in recent years, governments have taken the more decidedly extreme tactic of cutting off internet access entirely, depriving their citizens of a lifeline to the world...and each other, a tactic that Human Rights Watch has rightly called "collective punishment."
"And yet, internet shutdowns increased exponentially during the past two years, according to advocacy group Access Now's research"
As I have previously written, lockdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have only served to solidify the internet's importance in daily life, as citizens of many countries have been encouraged or even ordered to stay at home. And yet, internet shutdowns increased exponentially during the past two years, according to advocacy group Access Now's research.
The group, which runs the #KeepItOn campaign and coalition, documented 155 shutdown incidents in 2020 alone, during which 29 different governments, including Yemen, India, Jordan, Egypt, Cuba, and Myanmar denied access to their residents. India led the world in shutdowns, most of which were targeted at the region of Jammu and Kashmir, with the most common reason being cited as "precautionary measures."
While much of the world is going back to "normal" amid the continuing pandemic, internet shutdowns have hardly abated. One country that has chosen the path of denying access amidst a political crisis in Sudan: In the wake of violence that began this summer, MTN Sudan and other telecommunications companies blocked access to the internet by disrupting cellular data networks, according to Access Now, as well as certain fixed-line services.
The backdrop of the government's denial of access is a process of political transition that began in September 2019 following nine months of street protests against the government of Omar al-Bashir, who held power for nearly thirty years following his successful 1989 coup. Though protests in 2011 inspired by the revolutions in neighbouring countries sought to unseat the ruling regime, it would take another eight years of movement-building to finally shake loose the long-entrenched leader.
This is not the first time Sudan has sought control over the internet: The government previously blocked a wide range of websites, including pornography and political opposition, and enacted a wide-scale shutdown in 2018. The head of the country's national intelligence and security service (NISS) admitted that year that the government was indeed behind the blocking of social media platforms, but provided no further information about the decision. In June of this year, internet service providers were ordered to block 32 websites, 15 of which were news platforms. The order came from the cybercrime prosecution office.
The latest move, however, occurred after the military tried to seize power just over a year into a proposed 39-month political transition period overseen by the Sovereignty Council of Sudan led by civilian prime minister Abdalla Hamdok. The coup, which was followed by an attempt by the military to install a new council, was condemned by the UN and major world powers.
The United Nations Human Rights Council, as well as global civil society, roundly condemned the internet shutdown, and on November 9, a Sudanese court ordered the country’s three primary telecommunications providers to restore internet access. As of November 15, however, the shutdown was still in place according to local reports.
Internet shutdowns are serious human rights violations, but they are also costly: Egypt’s relatively brief 2011 shutdown during the revolution reportedly cost the country $US 90 million. A decade later, the stakes are even higher: A tool from NetBlocks, a group that conducts research and produces measurements related to internet censorship and shutdowns suggests that Sudan's 6-day shutdown in June 2021 cost the country $US 1,694,039,708. And a 2019 report from Quartz stated that the country's prior shutdowns had cost the economy $US 1.8 billion.
"In order to ensure that everyone has equal access to information and the ability to express themselves, it is imperative that we work together to ensure that the future of the internet is not a fractured one"
But for Sudan and many other countries, the "benefits" of shutting down the internet — stifling dissent, preventing citizens from accessing information alternatives or sharing undesirable ideas — outweigh the costs. Whether that remains true for Sudan in the face of global opposition, however, remains to be seen.
While lawmakers in the United States and Europe consider regulations that aim at reigning in tech companies like Facebook (and potentially hinder speech), internet censorship is still on the rise across the region and around the world.
In order to ensure that everyone has equal access to information and the ability to express themselves, it is imperative that we work together to ensure that the future of the internet is not a fractured one.
Jillian C. York is a writer and activist whose work examines the impact of technology on our societal and cultural values. Based in Berlin, she is the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a fellow at the Center for Internet & Human Rights at the European University Viadrina, and a visiting professor at the College of Europe Natolin.
Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork
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