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Connection Not Found: When Governments Pull the Plug on the Internet

Between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016, there were 81 government-ordered disruptions to internet access across the globe. Of these, 36 were full, nation-wide internet shutdowns. The varied justifications given by rulers as to why they pulled the plug make the issue complicated to tackle; worse, it’s possible that many such rationales belie the true intentions of those who order the shutdowns. When protests erupted over the molestation of a young girl by a soldier in the Kashmir region of India in April 2016, authorities restricted internet access to stifle dissent and prevent further protest. The police publicly purported that service was restricted merely to prevent the spread of rumors. And in July 2016, the Erdogan administration in Turkey—known silencers of any dissent—throttled social media websites after a suicide bombing killed 45 in Istanbul, but flat-out denied manipulating internet access.

Rulers often justify disrupting internet access as a response to national security and public safety threats. Even President Trump suggested in a tweet that terrorists be stopped by an internet “cut off.” Yet in most cases, governments’ motivations are more sinister, reflecting issues endemic not to the internet but rather to the regimes themselves. Even in situations in which the government believes that shutting off the internet is a response to a legitimate problem, using it as a solution ends up creating even more issues, leaving citizens, businesses, and governments worse off.

Internet access is not a luxury; it is a human right. Last summer, the United Nations unanimously added Section 32 to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrines “The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet.” And it’s easy to see why: Across the world, internet access has become imperative to businesses, organizations, and social movements. Yet in many countries, the government has enormous power to shut down the internet, often because telecommunications infrastructure is publicly-owned or there are few telecommunications providers in the first place.

Though despotic governments may use internet shutdowns as a powerful tool, this tool may actually cut against their own interests. A study out of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution estimated that the worldwide internet shutdowns between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016 cost $2.4 billion in GDP, not accounting “for tax losses or drops in investor, business, and consumer confidence.” In the Republic of the Congo, an internet shutdown was estimated to have cost $72 million, nearly one percent of its 2015 GDP. Worse, internet shutdowns can disrupt hospitals and classrooms, interfering with proper medical care and impeding students’ ability to learn. Taking away these basic services could lead to more dissent than whatever prompted the shutdown in the first place. Governments considering an internet shutdown should remember the economic and political ramifications of such a move, if not the humanitarian ones.

Though some governments may have legitimate reasons to shut down the web, most use excuses of public safety and security concerns to obscure their true reasons for restricting free and open communication. #KeepItOn, a campaign by advocacy organization Access Now, tracks governments’ public statements about shutdowns. It ranks the four most commonly stated rationales to be protecting public safety, stopping rumors, or the dissemination of illegal content, safeguarding school exams, and enhancing national security. In contrast, it ranks the top four suspected motives to be stopping protests, quelling political instability, controlling elections, and controlling information.

No matter how guarded their intentions, internet shutdowns often foster the dissent they were intended to suppress. The most common reason governments give for disrupting the internet—to shut down protest for public safety—exemplifies this point. While stopping violent protests helps maintain public safety, restricting full internet access does not. Protests themselves are not inherently dangerous to civilians—in fact, a large factor in the breakdown of non-violent protests into violence is repression from the state. Jonathan Pinckney, a research fellow at the Sie Cheou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy, says “violent turns are not simply emotional responses to government brutality, but rather follow a more rational calculus by movement participants who see nonviolent action being met with government violence over and over again.”

Thus, when governments shut down access to the internet, they put a lid on discontent that could soon boil over. Furthermore, when violent protests ensue anyway, internet disruptions make people unable to contact friends and family. People who have been injured may not be able to receive necessary care in hospitals, and people may be unable to reach local law enforcement.

Even with all the evidence against shutting down the internet, a fearful executive could still be tempted if the option is made available. Luckily, there are steps that companies, citizens, and other branches of government can take to protect against internet shutdowns. As of 2012, 61 countries had only one or two companies providing internet service. Centralized telecommunications create greater risk of internet disruption by government officials. National legislatures should pass measures to encourage competition among internet service providers and overhaul existing laws that allow executives to easily shut down the internet. The latter is particularly important because outdated or overly broad legislation often leaves room for internet access to be restricted by the government. India’s 42 shutdowns between January and August of 2017 were justified using the Telegraph Act of 1885, a fairly archaic standard. And even recent laws allow governments to order shutdowns and takeovers in times of national emergency, with little criteria for what qualifies a situation to be considered an emergency.

The international community also has a role to play: International law that guides protocols for internet shutdowns must be updated to be more specific. There should be a stricter set of guidelines for service restriction orders (SROs), requests from governments to service providers to “restrict services on their networks.” The GSMA, a group of mobile network operators around the world, put forward in their 2017 Mobile Policy Handbook that SROs should be discouraged. It also called for governments to inform citizens about the issuing of SROs. In making requests for restricting access, governments should make clear the reasoning and legal standing for doing so. Similar to how warrants are obtained by police officers, governments should have the burden to prove to an impartial judge that the internet is directly linked to a genuine threat unfixable without shutting it down altogether.

The international community must also increase pressure on countries that make a habit of shutting down internet access. While the United Nations’ addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a good first step, it’s important that countries consider internet disruption with equal weight as other human rights violations. As the internet becomes more interwoven with the daily lives of people all around the world, governments would do well to tread carefully; shutting off the internet could spark consequences far worse than leaving it on.