Why you should be more concerned about internet shutdowns

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Any time you see a government—or a group, in the case of the Taliban—expressing autocratic, authoritarian, and repressive views, it follows that they might do what they say they want to do, which is restrict access to information and communication. I’m very concerned about the situation in Afghanistan. Making sure that people there have access to information, the ability to communicate, and the ability to get the news is essential. 

How sophisticated does somebody have to be to enact one of these shutdowns? Can anyone with a meaningful level of control over the internet infrastructure engage in these activities?

You’re right to point out that the way that shutdowns transpire often relates to how much control a government has over the telecommunications infrastructure in a given country. And that varies: it varies country by country, and it varies over time. 

One of the things that we’ve observed, and it’s been reported on well by others, is that a number of governments are considering laws that would increase their control over telecommunications infrastructure. That is part of three simultaneous trends. First, you have the increasing frequency of internet shutdowns. Second, you have the increased attention by governments to how they control telecommunications infrastructure in their countries. And you also see a recession of democracy around the world, and an increase in autocratic governments exerting power over civil society.

What is the real risk? 

It’s certainly more than an inconvenience. It’s a matter of life and death in some cases. It’s certainly a matter of livelihoods lost—of civil society being restricted, access to information being restricted, and freedom of expression being curtailed. I think as more people are living their lives online and as democratic institutions increasingly rely on the internet as a way to facilitate civic participation—to share news and information, for people to communicate with each other, and for people to organize—the risk of a government shutting down the internet carries increasing costs.

Global intentional internet shutdowns

Jan 2020 – May 2021

What can the average internet-using citizen do about this? What can we do to better recognize when it’s happening and prevent it?

It depends a lot on your circumstances. There are a number of tools that can allow you to access the free and open internet—virtual private networks (VPNs), for example. There are certain tools that allow you to protect yourself from specific kinds of censorship. DNS poisoning is a common form of censorship where a government manipulates individual URLs. We have a tool called Intra (and there are other tools, too) that protect users and allow them to circumvent those restrictions.