More internet shutdowns in 2022 than ever before
In 2022, governments in 35 countries shut down the internet a total of 187 times. This is according to the balance sheet published by the organization Access Now on Tuesday. 2022 was “a catastrophic year for human rights,” the NGO stated.
Authoritarian states such as Myanmar, Sudan and Iran had used internet shutdowns – some repeatedly – to attack democratic movements, weaken civil society and conceal human rights abuses, it said. However, numerous democracies are among the countries that used the highly criticized measure.
The Indian government ordered 84 shutdowns – more than any other country in 2022. In second place is Russia, the occupying power. It blocked the internet in parts of Ukraine 22 times and also deliberately destroyed telecommunications infrastructure. The Iranian mullah regime had the internet shut down 18 times. In Ethiopia’s Tigray region, people have been without internet for more than two years.
The organization denounces the internet shutdowns as “targeted attacks on human rights.” Felicia Anthonio, campaign manager at the organization said, “In 2022, under authoritarian regimes and in democracies, powermongers accelerated their use of these callous tactics, disrupting the internet to fuel their agendas of oppression — manipulating narratives, silencing voices, and ensuring cover for their own acts of violence and abuse.”
Shutdowns exacerbate disasters
More shutdowns were imposed in 2022 than ever before (in German). In 2021, authorities in 34 countries had blocked access to the internet 184 times. In 2020, the figure was 29 countries and 159 shutdowns. After declining at the height of the pandemic, internet shutdowns are now being used more frequently again. Thirty-three of the 35 countries that imposed shutdowns in 2022 were repeat offenders.
In 2022, internet shutdowns lasted longer and targeted specific populations. Authorities also had shown no qualms about using the measure when access to the internet was most needed: during humanitarian crises, mass protests, and active conflicts and wars.
In 62 cases, the internet had been shut down during public demonstrations, 33 times during active conflicts, and in 8 cases even during (high) school exams. Authorities also used elections, political instability, religious holidays, or visits by government officials as reasons for internet shutdowns.
According to the report, "Weapons of Control, Shields of Impunity: Internet Shutdowns in 2022", at least 48 shutdowns in 14 countries served to conceal human rights abuses and grant impunity to perpetrators. Among others, this was the case in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Russia and Tajikistan. Although, internet shutdowns themselves were already a violation of human rights.
India most restrictive
India continues to lead Access Now statistics in 2022, for the fifth year in a row. More than half of the country’s (in German) internet shutdowns were documented in the disputed Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, which is considered politically unstable. There, authorities blocked internet access for up to 100 days. In West Bengal and Rajasthan, the authorities also imposed internet shutdowns on several occasions. The reasons included protests, public violence, and school exams.
The restrictions affected the daily lives of millions of people for hundreds of hours, criticizes Access Now. The business of many (small) entrepreneurs is dependent on access to the internet. In addition, tourism suffers with every shutdown because communication is disrupted and navigation and mobility apps no longer work. Parts of the payments industry also depend on the internet. “The government is promoting a cashless economy, but during a shutdown we can’t make a single transaction,” one affected delivery driver told the organization.
In addition to complete shutdowns, Indian authorities had blocked at least 55,607 websites, applications, social media posts and accounts between 2015 and 2022. These censorship measures had steadily increased, and by 2022, well over twice as many posts had been blocked than in 2018.
Tigray: offline for years
In parts of the Tigray region, the world’s longest-running internet shutdown (in German) continues. The internet has been blocked in the Ethiopian province for over two years. The reason was originally an armed conflict between the government of Ethiopia and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front.
Not having access to the internet for so long during the dispute had a “staggering impact” on people’s lives. One affected person told Access Now that she was unable to contact her relatives for more than two years. “The shutdown provided a cover for the warring parties to commit heinous crimes, including systematic and widespread murder, rape, and sexual violence against vulnerable groups,” the report says. Basic services such as health care, banking, employment and education functioned unreliably.
A peace agreement that was reached actually calls for the restoration of access to essential communications services beginning in November 2022. However, Access Now reports, “As of February 2023, many people in Tigray still remain digitally cut off, and those who have regained some access are largely struggling with slow speeds and limited 2G services.” Thus, nearly six million people in Tigray remain offline.
While the government is working to lift the measure, it does not yet foresee (in German) an end date, Ethiopia’s Minister of Innovation and Technology, Belete Molla, had said at the United Nations Internet Governance Forum in late November.
Internet shutdowns in Myanmar
People in parts of Myanmar have also been without access to the internet for more than 540 days. Access Now reports that the military government has used the shutdowns to cover up serious human rights abuses, such as murder and torture, and to block communications between individuals and groups. To date, at least seven shutdowns have occurred, it said. “However, this number does not reflect the full extent and nature of the disruptions of communications throughout the country,” the organization warns.
It said the military controls all telecommunications providers in the country and has expanded its surveillance infrastructure (in German). It said that those in power have successively and irregularly shut down internet access in different regions. In many regions, VPN services or encrypted messenger apps do not work, which also makes it difficult for activists to work safely.
All 330 municipalities in the country were affected by an internet outage at least once in 2022. Functioning communication links are therefore an exception rather than the norm in Myanmar. Often, the shutdowns occurred while the military was attacking localities and violating human rights.
The longest shutdown in Hpakant Township in Kachin State lasted 18 months. In around 50 other communities, the authorities blocked the internet for more than a year, and in some places for more than 500 days.
The human rights organization announces it will continue to oppose internet shutdowns worldwide. “We call on all stakeholders to do their part in advancing our cause to uphold free expression and keep people connected,” they write.
The organization calls on governments to commit in “law, policy and practice” to safeguarding access to the web.
Technology companies should collaborate and share with civil society. That way, they could better learn how and when shutdowns occur and impact your services. Measures would need to be taken to make platforms and services resilient to shutdowns.
Journalists and (legal) experts recommend that activists document internet shutdowns, find ways to circumvent them, and take (legal) action against them.
These countermeasures have already proven effective in the past, they say. “People and communities who have been most directly impacted by shutdowns have shown incredible resourcefulness and resolve in advancing efforts to document shutdowns, as well as human rights violations taking place alongside them.” (hcz)