Internet shutdowns by governments are becoming more frequent and systematic. Access Now, a human rights group focused on an open and free internet, documented 56 internet shutdowns in 18 countries last year, a spike from the 15 shutdowns reported in 2015.
“We first saw this as an issue during the Egypt uprising in early 2011 when telcos shut off all domestic access to the internet,” noted Peter Micek, global policy and legal counsel for Access Now. Most regions have been hit with an internet shutdown lasting anywhere from a few hours to weeks. Brazil, Malaysia, Algeria, Turkey, India, and North Korea all experienced at least one shutdown in the past two years.
Shutdowns vary in execution, from limited blocks on certain social media sites to putting entire towns offline. When these shutdowns occur, government authorities often cite national security as their primary motivation. Julie Owono, head of the Africa desk at Internet Without Borders, notes that “most documented shutdowns occurred within an intense political context, be it contested elections or citizens protesting in the streets.” For instance, months after a failed coup in Turkey, users in the country reported repeated blocks on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
Governments don’t have an internet kill-switch within reach — they need the support of telecoms operators to pull off a shutdown. By issuing a court order or legal request, government authorities can require telecoms to implement a block list of select sites or even disconnect certain locations from internet access. Telecoms providers are bound by national regulations and license agreements, so few companies decide to go rogue on government requests.
However, Micek argues, “Telcos do have a lot of power since they can go to court, they can lobby governments and peers to push back against orders.” The Stockholm-based telecom Telia decided to promote transparency by publishing any problematic requests. The governments of Tajikistan, Georgia, and Kazakhstan are among those they’ve publicly exposed.
Inside an internet shutdown
Cameroon’s English-speaking regions sank into a complete internet blackout on January 17, an outage that is still ongoing. The shutdown came on the heels of organized ‘ghost town’ strikes and street protests towards the end of 2016. The West African nation’s anglophone provinces had long felt marginalized by poor infrastructure and the primarily French-speaking government’s attempts to require the use of French in courts and schools.
Right before the shutdown, mobile users received warning texts from the country’s Telecommunications Ministry, which stated publishing or sharing unverified news on social media could be punished with up to two years of jail time. “The government has been waging a war against social media, precisely because of its power to show how protesters are being treated and counter official government propaganda,” said Owono. Once the shutdown was in effect, SMS warnings upped the stakes to 20 years in prison.
Local businesses and access to education are lagging during the shutdown. Sophie Ngassa, a civil engineer and STEM advocate in Bamenda, an English-speaking city in northwestern Cameroon, says the unrest led to school closures which have kept her four children home for several months. Her online education has also taken a hit. “I have to travel 7.5km out of the city to go to Bafoussam [in a French-speaking region] so I can attend my virtual classroom.”
National human rights groups have reported arbitrary arrests since the shutdown started, often targeting protesters. David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, condemned the shutdown on February 10 for violating international law and denying Cameroonians “access to essential services and basic resources.” International advocacy groups issued an open letter to the central government to end the shutdown.