Sep 1, 2021 - Technology

Government internet shutdowns grow more common and costlier

Ina Fried
Data: Axios analysis of NetBlocks reports; Chart: Will Chase/Axios
Data: Axios analysis of NetBlocks reports; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

Once rare, partial or total internet shutdowns engineered by governments have become a near-daily occurrence somewhere in the world.

Why it matters: Such shutdowns pose a threat to human rights and are also costing the global economy billions of dollars per year, according to a new report from nonprofit Access Now and Jigsaw, a unit of Google parent Alphabet.

By the numbers:

  • Access Now documented 50 internet shutdowns in 21 countries during the first five months of 2021.
  • In addition to the impact on human rights and individual lives, there is a huge economic cost. The report notes that severe, prolonged Internet shutdowns in Myanmar have resulted in an economic loss of $2.1 billion, or 2.5 percent of the country's GDP.

"The problem is getting worse both in intensity and costs," Jigsaw's Dan Keyserling tells Axios. That's partly because there are more shutdowns, but also because the shutdowns matter more as the internet becomes more central to more people's lives.

  • "The pandemic has just accelerated all of that," Keyserling said.

Between the lines: Large tech companies — including Google and Facebook — publish transparency reports that offer glimpses of how often their services were hit by shutdowns, but Keyserling says such reports show only part of the picture.

  • Internet shutdowns can be total, but they often take other forms, including blocking social media or specific sites using a variety of means — some of which initially resemble technical problems rather than deliberate state action.
  • Attack methods include throttling Internet speeds, denial-of-service attacks, blocking specific IP addresses and cutting off mobile data access.
  • "This can look differently than somebody just flicking a switch," Keyserling said. "It’s not always obvious what’s happening when it is happening."
  • While broad shutdowns are often the tool of choice for dictators and those conducting coups, global powers are also conducting targeted cyberattacks against other countries.

What they're saying: Jigsaw's report quotes individuals from around the world talking about the personal impact of such shutdowns.

  • Pino Ivan Louis, 36, Tororo, Uganda: "It was devastating. I felt like a piece of me had been cut off."
  • Jameel, 16, Baghdad, Iraq: "I couldn't talk to my parents without spending money, nor could I contact my relatives living outside Iraq. I lost connections to all my online friends outside Iraq."
  • Benjamin, 34, Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo: "There is ongoing armed ethnic violence throughout our region, and most of the people live in insecurity. Without the internet, conflicts burst out and we do not know about it. Women are raped. Villages are burned down."

The big picture: Through the latest report and other efforts, Keyserling said that Jigsaw is looking to help foster better data on the issue. That, he said, could help spur a more sophisticated dialogue and establish global norms against such shutdowns.

Go deeper