ON SEPTEMBER 26TH residents of the state of Rajasthan in north-west India discovered that their mobile phones could no longer connect to the internet. For several hours services such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Google Maps were rendered useless. The outage was no accident. District officials explained they had ordered internet providers to shut off access to pre-empt cheating on an exam for highly coveted teacher positions in the state’s school system. But the shutdown affected millions more. In Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital, an estimated 80,000 shops and businesses were forced to close.
This is not the first time India’s government has pulled the plug on its citizens. Access Now, a New York‐based advocacy group, reckons that state and local authorities in the country have shut down mobile-phone or broadband networks nearly 500 times since 2016. And although India is the worst offender, it is not the only one. According to Access Now, 66 countries have implemented shutdowns, in some form or another, since 2016 (see map). In 2019 alone there were 213 such incidents.
Shutdowns have become more sophisticated in recent years. Authorities have learned to take out specific platforms, such as WhatsApp or Twitter, to discourage political mobilisation. They may also ask internet services providers to throttle, or deliberately slow down, network traffic or hit only mobile internet connections. Shutdowns may affect individual cities or entire countries; they may last a few hours or drag on for months. In Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where the army and rebel forces have clashed for nearly a year, residents have been cut off for over 300 days.
The motivations for such interruptions are usually political. India has ordered internet shutdowns to quell local protests and to stamp out civil unrest, especially in the Kashmir valley. This year Uganda, Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo imposed blackouts in the run-up to closely fought elections. Authorities usually justify their actions on the grounds that they protect the public from hate speech or misinformation, but advocacy groups argue they suppress free speech and help to cover up human-rights abuses.
They are costly, too. A study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, found that internet shutdowns cost countries $2.4bn in lost GDP in 2016. Some consider them human-rights violations. In 2016 the United Nations passed a resolution declaring the internet to be a human right, and condemning “measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to our dissemination of information online”. The resolution was passed without a vote but a number of countries supported amendments to weaken it. Among them were China, Russia and India. ■