When it comes to Internet shutdowns, there is immediate attention focused on human rights, the censorship of opposing ideas and beliefs, political or otherwise, and an attempt to monitor and control information. Such tactics had been mostly executed by the most severe and draconian governments like Iran and North Korea to preserve regime stability, and usually in times of tempestuous potential internal civil unrest. However, a recent report has revealed that Internet shutdowns have become an increasing frequent tactic by more than just a handful of governments, a worrisome trend that suggests that in a dynamic cyber threat space full of cyber attacks, disinformation, influence campaigns, and propaganda, this may be a go-to option to mitigate potential threats and consequences to governments.
Internet shutdowns are purposeful short- or long-term disruptions to Internet access and digital communications, depending on the goals to be achieved by the government in power. One of the most common ways to restrict the Internet is done via complete network shutdown, either by use of a kill-switch or by compelling Internet Service Providers and mobile carriers to cut critical circuits of the country’s telecommunications network. Another option is via Border Gate Protocol manipulation, a more precise process to make some entities disappear from the Internet and are inaccessible to people in that country. Domain Name Filtering and IP address blocking are ways to block internal access to sites and regulate how internal audiences access the outside world.
According to a report on the Cost of Internet Shutdowns, there were 114 major outages across 23 countries in 2022 impacting around 700 million people (although another source puts that figure as high as 4.2 billion), representing a 41% increase from the previous year. Key findings revealed that these shutdowns consisted of approximately 51,000 hours of Internet disruptions, which included Internet blackouts and Internet throttling which intentionally limits bandwidth to control web traffic. The most effected social media platforms were Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube, which happened to be among the most globally popular outlets in 2022, as well, and where many people create, transmit, receive, and consume traditional and nontraditional news sources.
The catalysts for Internet shutdowns included regional conflict, internal protests, military coups, general information control, and political repression, among others. But such shutdowns can be conducted with defense in mind as well. Hacking, ransomware, and data breaches are just some ways the public and private sectors have been exploited for financial and information gain by state and nonstate actors. This has driven some states to test cutting themselves off from the Internet as a means of protecting critical industries, causing concern regarding the emergence of a splinternetecosystem where states have segmented the Internet according to any number of self-interests including but not limited to nationalism, technology, political, and economic interests. Russia conducted a limited test in March 2022 shortly after its invasion of Ukraine, likely in anticipation of cyber attacks directed against it for their attack.
Notwithstanding, it’s clear that the volume of shutdowns occurred the prior year when authoritarian tactics were put into place to stymie expressions of dissent and information sharing. However, such measures have a financial cost as well. Per the report, since 2019, these shutdowns cost the global economy an estimated USD 42 billion, with 2022 shutdowns accounting for USD 24 billion, a 323% increase from 2021. Regionally, these shutdowns impacted Europe the most, likely a result of Ukrainian conflict. The Middle East/North Africa, Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and North America founded out the rankings. Russia suffered USD 21.5 billion dollars in losses, Iran USD 773 million, and Kazakhstan USD 410 million. The United Nations found that despite the limited tenure of some of these shutdowns, they are felt over long periods of time, which only aggravated economic issues, in some cases creating situations where companies felt constrained to conduct their business operations, depending on how shutdowns were implemented. So, not only do such practices influence what transpires in the information space, but they also have far-reaching economic consequences that extend beyond state restricting Internet access.
Despite the exposure given to these partial or full Internet shutdowns, there doesn’t seem to be any sign of their abatement. And while this is to be expected from authoritarian regimes, democratic-principled governments need to lead by example. This would also require them to refrain from engaging in activities that could amount to selective censorship, or the equivalent of a limited though targeted Internet shutdown, thereby derailing their credibility. Recent reporting has indicated that even democracies have been known to engage in this practice, whether as a means of combatting misinformation or quelling questionable content that could impact societal decision-making. One reportidentified India – the world’s largest democracy – as having conducted the most Internet shutdowns in 2021. And even the United States has one official and several agencies alleged to have tried to censor social media in an effort to restrict public access to certain news. This perception has got to change.
Moving forward, any reduction of Internet shutdowns would require a global effort from public and private sectors to curb the practice via a robust multi-pronged engagement through monitoring, documenting shutdowns, proactively alerting the public ahead of potential shutdowns, and ultimately holding those offending governments accountable. International organizations like the United Nations, the European Union, and the G7 may be best positioned to start to increase global resilience to Internet shutdowns by providing regional assistance and international aid for connectivity (Starlink, anyone?) to combat this practice. For the private sector, organizations are encouraged to explore mitigation strategies that will help them avoid becoming completely isolated. Like with any contingency plan, private sector organizations need to understand the regional environment in which they are situated in order to develop a viable continuity plan should they fall victim to an Internet shutdown. Conducting an impact analysis will help them identify mission critical information and functions and develop alternate means to maintain some level of business operations during temporary times of Internet disruption.
The increasing willingness of governments to execute some form of Internet shutdown risks becoming a digital normal the more this practice is executed. For a medium that provides global social, economic, educational, and cultural benefit, and has revolutionized the way individuals, and the public and private sectors engage the world around them, ensuring its resiliency and accessibility is essential. Otherwise, the global community is giving its tacit approval for governments to use it as another political tool for coercion, punishment, and leverage. And that is a “norm” that should never be allowed.