The world wide web was designed to be open. It transcends international borders and allows the free flow of information, which according to the OECD (2017) is important to “trade, innovation, entrepreneurship, growth and social prosperity”, but this causes new problems for governments in (depending on your viewpoint) maintaining civil order, or restricting citizens’ right to protest.
This unregulated platform for sharing & coordinating not only messages of dissent but plans for mass protest has shaken governments around the world since the earliest examples in Egypt during the Arab Spring of 2011. The driving force behind dissent may differ from country to country, but the response is often very similar: shut down the internet.
Governments worldwide have adopted a wide range of methods, of varying degrees of sophistication, to prevent people from accessing the internet, from throttling bandwidth at national gateways to changing routing tables that allow some services to stay up.
A government’s ability to initiate a shutdown depends largely on its control over ISPs in the country. The 2011 example in the Arab Spring was possible due to Egypt’s main service provider (Telecom Egypt) being owned by the government. This is significantly more difficult in countries where governments have no power to compel ISPs to take action.
China, by contrast, has such sophisticated & well-documented filtering and censorship systems that they have earned their own nickname – the “great firewall”. This system not only prevents web browsers from accessing information on “the three Ts” – Tibet, Taiwan & Tiananmen – but routinely monitors users’ uploads, using algorithms that prevent the posting of content the government does not want to be available publicly, and suggesting revisions that would allow the post to be published. This process is called harmonising – contributing to China’s “harmonious” society.
The motivations cited for an internet shutdown vary from the seemingly benign to the extreme: preventing cheating on nationwide exams in India through to the Congolese government ordering telecoms company Orange to slow internet speeds to make it harder to transmit “abusive” images on social media. The second example comes in response to opposition to the current president who has said that he will refuse to step down when his term ends in December.
What seems clear is that shutdowns are rarely effective means of achieving a government’s stated goals: it is difficult to argue that a government is keeping its citizens safe by restricting their access to reliable information. Blackouts cannot be applied selectively, and affect emergency services as much as anyone else, actually hampering response times in the event of serious incidents. As Access Now make clear, it also “prevents people from documenting human rights violations such as the disproportionate use of force by the police or military.”
Alternatives to pulling the plug
As mentioned earlier, many countries make it impossible for the government to simply flip the ‘off’ switch. In the US, for example, the president cannot simply order a shutdown of the internet. Instead, Trump exercises what many call bully tactics – calling out journalists by name, or their broadcaster/newspaper, declaiming them as fake news.
He has so comprehensively poisoned the well of public trust in the media that in a recent poll 76% of Republicans (46% of all registered voters) believe that the media make up stories about Trump (Politico, 2016). His personal definition of the word ‘truth’ seems to be ‘things that fit with my world view’, and his response to everything else is to repeatedly shout “fake news” until enough people believe him. Rather than viewing the Internet as a threat to his authority, he uses the platform (especially Twitter) to further his own agenda, and is doing it very effectively.
Access Now (2016). Five excuses governments (ab)use to justify internet shutdowns [Online], available from: https://www.accessnow.org/five-excuses-governments-abuse-justify-internet-shutdowns/ [Accessed Monday 23rd of October, 2017].
Access Now (2017). Launching STOP: the #KeepItOn internet shutdown tracker [Online], available from: https://www.accessnow.org/keepiton-shutdown-tracker/ [Accessed Monday 23rd of October, 2017].
Collier (2016). Governments Loved To Shut Down The Internet In 2016 — Here’s Where [Online], available from: http://www.vocativ.com/386042/internet-access-shut-off-censorship/index.html [Accessed Monday 23rd of October, 2017].
OECD (2017). The Economic and Social Benefits of Internet Openness [Online], available from: http://www.oecd.org/internet/ministerial/themes/internet-openness-innovation/ [Accessed Monday 23rd of October, 2017].