We need to talk about internet shutdowns

Just what is an internet shutdown, and why do we need to #KeepItOn? Here are the answers to your questions, the facts behind the campaigning, and ways you can make an impact.

What is an internet shutdown?

An internet shutdown happens when someone (usually a government) intentionally disrupts the internet or mobile apps to control what people say, see or do. Shutdowns are also sometimes called "blackouts" or "kill switches."

To really get down to the nitty gritty, the technical definition is: "An intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information." 

Why do governments order shutdowns?

Governments give many reasons for ordering shutdowns. It could be to stop people from sharing information or organising protests, even when the demonstrations are peaceful. Other reasons they’ve given include:

  • Stopping students from cheating on school exams.
  • Punishing certain companies, such as messaging app makers.
  • Preventing attacks during public holidays.
  • Protecting national security.

Some governments also shut down social media and the internet during elections - the most critical moment in a democracy - in order to shape the outcome or hide fraud.

Outdated laws that were created before the digital age are being used to justify shutdowns. In fact, local governments in India use a telegraph law from 1885 to justify taking over a network. Access Now, a group defending and extending the digital rights of users at risk around the world, aims to push back on this practice. In June, the United Nations Human Rights Council “unequivocally condemned” internet shutdowns for violating your human rights. 

What can people do about this?

You can take action on the Access Now website and pressure world leaders to commit to keeping the internet on. 

You can also make a difference by telling people that this issue matters and needs to stop. Take to social media, and use the hashtag #KeepItOn

What is Access Now doing to reduce shutdowns?

Access Now has been fighting internet shutdowns since 2009, starting with the government of Iran’s disruption of the internet during the Green Revolution. Right now, they're working with more than 100 organisations from nearly 50 countries to push back against this practice at all levels. This includes the United Nations, governments, and key stakeholders such as telecommunications companies and investors. 

How is the government able to shut down the internet?

There are several ways to shut down the internet. One way is to make sure that when a web address is typed in, the internet service provider doesn't allow the underlying IP address to be found. Another way is for internet service providers to mess with the routing tables, removing key details. This means that the packets of information traveling on the web, such as an animated gif, aren't allowed to travel to their final destination. In addition to these examples, there are many more ways, and governments are using increasingly sophisticated methods to disrupt communications.

How do you know it's not just a technical problem when the internet goes out?

Access Now doesn’t class loss of the internet as a shutdown until they have accurate information. They work hard with journalists, companies, civil society groups, and governments to figure out if it's a technical glitch or an intentional disruption. There are often digital clues along the way that help them understand the situation better, while at other times governments openly admit they have ordered a shutdown. Sometimes users on the ground can provide vital evidence such as screenshots or even network measurements.

What makes internet shutdowns such an important topic?

The internet helps us realise our human rights, including free expression and privacy. When governments shut off the internet, people can't communicate with loved ones, run their businesses, or even visit their doctors during an emergency. More and more people need the internet to connect and make a living, and cannot afford to lose access on a routine basis.

The worst thing we can do is sit and do nothing, when it’s within our power to do something. If the world outlaws this practice entirely then we can hold people accountable for violating the rules.

Can governments be penalised for ordering a shutdown?

Yes and no. The UN Human Rights Council has "unequivocally condemned" internet shutdowns, and so too have many officials and leaders around the world. All governments have a responsibility to respect and protect human rights, and to provide a remedy when rights are violated. But there is currently no binding sanction or penalty for disrupting the internet. So it’s up to us to raise the stakes, and use our voices, each time it happens.

What can civil society groups do to influence governments to avoid shutdowns?

Civil society groups have a huge role to play in ending the practice of shutdowns. They can speak out to our leaders, collect information and evidence about shutdowns, educate our communities, and develop ways for people to stop shutdowns. They can also help people circumvent shutdowns and get online during certain situations, for example through the use of technology tools such as Virtual Private Networks. But shutdowns are a multi-stakeholder problem, with companies and governments also playing a critical role. We all need to work together to reach a solution.

Are shutdowns actually helpful in preventing terrorist attacks?

There is no evidence that shutting down the internet helps prevent terrorist attacks, or stops them while they're occurring. The more likely effect is that they prevent police officers and emergency responders from doing their jobs exactly at the moment they're most needed. And it can cause psychological harm, as people can't find out if their loved ones are safe. Governments need to share more about why they order shutdowns, to let the public make an informed choice about the issue.

Is there a risk that shutdowns are going to be more and more frequent in the future?

Access Now has documented over 50 shutdowns in 2016 alone, up from less than 20 in 2015. The trend does appear to be growing because more people are going online and using the internet. People are enjoying the freedom and opportunities that the internet provides, enabling them to organise themselves and advocate for what they believe in. In response, governments are shutting down the net to stop this practice, but at an enormous cost.

What civil society groups or charities exist in countries that order internet shutdowns?

Over 100 civil society groups from nearly 50 countries are members of the #KeepitOn campaign. Many of these organisations work in countries that are affected directly by shutdowns, including in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East/North Africa region. Some are tiny, grassroots groups with just one member of staff and volunteers, while others are established international organisations. You can view the full list of organisations on the Access Now website

Does it affect businesses when the internet is shut down?

Businesses suffer immensely during internet shutdowns. The Brookings Institution, a major think tank, found that the global economy lost at least $2.4 billion during internet shutdowns last year. That's an absolute minimum. Online banks, courier services, and internet companies have all lost drastic amounts of money during disruptions. This especially hurts developing countries, which are striving to embrace the digital economy and innovation.

Isn't this problem restricted to just a few countries?

No, shutdowns happen all over the world. They have been recorded in more than 25 countries on four continents this year, even in Europe. Additionally, some countries haven't actually ordered a shutdown, but they have the ability to do so. For example, the United States Department of Homeland Security has Standard Operating Procedure 303, which is secretive so people don't understand how or when it could be used. Many other countries have old or outdated laws that they interpret to authorise a shutdown.

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