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Conor Sanchez is a graduate student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. You can follow him @ConorSanchez.
As internet connectivity has spread dramatically throughout the world in the past decade, so has the propensity of governments to disrupt or completely block it. Access Now, a digital rights group, reports that the number of state-imposed internet shutdowns jumped from 75 in 2016 to 108 in 2017.
Interestingly, many of the countries where shutdowns occur include places where the internet is growing fastest, especially ones that saw the number of users double between 2010 and 2016. Countries such as the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Cameroon recognize that expanding access is essential to compete in the digital economy and yet, they also seek to control it when it challenges authority. The idea that internet usage and censorship are expanding in tandem is nothing new. But the economic and human rights costs of such corresponding trends are growing as the global economy becomes increasingly tied to digital platforms. A lack of internet access represses freedom of expression and also threatens livelihoods that depend on network connectivity.
Where internet disruptions are most prevalent is not always where you might expect. The country with the most shutdowns is not China, Belarus, or any number of other dictatorships. India—the world’s largest democracy—accounted for around 70 percent of all known shutdowns last year. This year, they already surpassed their previous record of 79 in 2017 with disruptions concentrated in areas experiencing unrest.
Shutdowns are also prevalent in Africa. Earlier this year, many parts of Ethiopia went months without internet access, a common occurrence ever since its largest ethnic communities began protesting. Cameroon holds the title of having implemented the world’s longest shutdown at 230 days.
Why nations engage in this behavior varies, but a popular reason is to quell political turmoil. Citing national security concerns, authorities claim the internet fuels unrest, encourages the spread of false information, and leads to violence, especially during elections. A few countries offer more innocent but equally curious assertions, such as it prevents cheating during national exams. Regardless of the cogency of the justification, countries appear to pay little heed to potential costs.
The correlation between access expansion and shutdowns
India's use of internet disruptions is all the more remarkable given its embrace of technology.
Starting in 2012, the national government pushed to expand internet access across the country. It recognized broadband connectivity as "a basic necessity," not unlike education or healthcare, and touted a "right to broadband." In 2015, the Modi government launched the Digital India initiative to transform itself into a digitally empowered society and economy. The program promised to build broadband "highways," ensure universal access to mobile connectivity, and build a public internet access program. The dividends of such efforts have paid off, making it one of the world's biggest digital success stories.
India isn’t alone. Ethiopia, Africa’s fastest growing economy, implemented a national five-year plan to improve its economy in part by increasing internet service subscribers from less than 200,000 to 3.7 million. Now, they’re among the most repressive in terms of internet censorship. Cameroon, too, has seen a big digital push with one city in the anglophone southwest being dubbed Silicon Mountain for its burgeoning tech community. Last year, it was crippled after the francophone-dominated government shut down access, creating internet refugees in the process.
Although countries clearly see expansion of access as critical to development, there is a seeming correlation between increasing access and using shutdowns. Growth is coupled with anxiety over the internet’s tendency to decentralize power, driving many governments to use it as a spigot that can be turned on and off when deemed appropriate.
A few attempts have been made to measure the adverse impact of shutdowns. A report from the Brookings Institution found that shutdowns in nineteen countries over a year-long period cost $2.4 billion. Using the same methodology across a different time period, Indian think-tank ICRIER estimated that 16,315 hours of shutdowns in India alone cost $3 billion between 2012 and 2017. Internet activists are building on this data to advocate against shutdowns by highlighting their economic cost.
As of yet, countries seem willing to absorb such costs if it curtails dissent. More internet access undoubtedly exerts new pressures on governments, especially for young democracies, and stopping information flows can offer a quick fix. Emboldening these measures are influential players like China, which touts internet sovereignty as a right for every nation.
With more than four billion people still lacking internet access, most of which reside in low- to middle-income nations, state-imposed internet shutdowns are likely to continue unless governments can be convinced that disrupting connectivity is a self-inflicted wound. Civil society, policymakers, and tech companies should continue to identify methods that more accurately measure costs, such as the effect on economic output or on the bottom line of companies that hold sway with authorities.
So much of what makes the internet valuable goes beyond the technology; it is the ability of businesses to rely on it and the ability of users to trust it. Severing internet access every once in a while undermines its promise.