Foreign government internet shutdowns soared in 2016

Governments shut down their citizens’ access to the global network 56 times in 2016, up 180 percent from 2015, according to Access Now, a digital rights organization.

Nations such as Ethiopia, Uganda and Gambia were among those that shut down internet access nationwide. Shutdowns at times were targeted to certain regions or even neighborhoods. Governments also enacted “digital curfews,” allowing internet access during business hours but shutting it out at night.

The closures often coincide with periods of political turmoil, such as around elections and during protests, Deji Olukotun, senior global advocacy manager at Access Now, told me.

The increase in blackout periods is alarming, he said, adding:

The internet enables all human rights. We see when governments disrupt the internet it often is followed by atrocities. The shutdown is sort of an early warning system.

Governments have become more sophisticated in how they block access to the internet, Olukotun said. In Bahrain, for example, the government shut down the internet in a particular neighborhood to stop protests. In Gambia, the government shut down the internet countrywide during elections.

The reason Olukotun believes there has been an increase in shutdowns is because more people worldwide are coming online, particularly through the use of their mobile phone.

But governments have shut down the internet for other reasons — Ethiopia, Syria, Algeria and Iraq have closed the network to prevent students from cheating on exams. “It’s a blunt instrument,” Olukotun said. “It cuts off the internet for everyone.”

One of the strangest examples, he said, involved a controversy over the the site of an Indian wrestling match. A local government shut down the network out of concern of protests, Olukotun said.

Countries risk a loss in economic activity when they block the internet, according to a recent Brookings Institute paper, which estimated nations lost $2.4 billion in 2015 because of internet shutdowns.

Above: The Google logo. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

 

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