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Governments Increasingly Use Internet Cuts to Silence Opposition

Demonstrators flash a three-fingered symbol of resistance against the military coup and shout slogans calling for the release of detained Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest in Mandalay, Myanmar on Feb. 10, 2021.
Digital siege: Internet cuts become favored tool of regimes
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Shutting down the internet has become an increasingly popular tool of repressive and authoritarian governments and some democracies around the world.

Rights groups say governments use such measures to prevent protests, silence the opposition or cover up human rights abuses. These controls are raising concerns about the restriction of freedom of speech.

Researchers say that repressive governments often cut access to the internet as a measure against protests or civil unrest. This is especially the case around the time of elections. These governments try to keep their hold on power by restricting the flow of information. In the past, they would have simply taken control of the local TV and radio stations. In the digital age, however, they take control of the internet as well.

Alp Toker started the research group Netblocks which studies the openness of the internet. He said, "Internet shutdowns have been massively underreported or misreported over the years." Because of the growth of documenting efforts like his, the world is "starting to realize what's happening," he added.

Last year there were 93 major internet shutdowns in 21 countries. Those numbers come from a report by Top10VPN, a digital privacy and security research group based in Britain. The list does not include places like China and North Korea, where the government strongly controls or restricts the internet. Shutdowns take many forms. The report said they can be complete internet blackouts, or they can involve blocking social media companies or sharply reducing internet speeds.

Experts warn that internet cuts have political, economic and humanitarian costs. The situation is even worse because of lockdown measures to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus that require school classes to be held online.

A wider debate

The shutdowns are part of a wider debate over control of the internet. In the West, efforts to limit social media have raised competing concerns about restricting free speech and limiting harmful information.

In the past few weeks, several countries have cut internet access or placed limits on social media. In Myanmar, the internet was cut for about 24 hours after the army seized power and arrested leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters. Then, internet users reported data access on their mobile phones suddenly returned.

Norway's Telenor ASA runs one of Myanmar's main wireless carriers and temporarily shut down networks. Telenor said, "We deeply regret the impact the shutdown has on the people of Myanmar."

Myanmar's government also carried out one of the world's longest internet shutdowns in the country’s Rakhine and Chin states. The action was meant to stop the operations of an armed ethnic group. The cutoff began in June 2019 and was only lifted on February 3.

Ethiopia's Tigray blackout

FILE - In this Jan. 14, 2021, file photo, security forces patrol the streets on election day in Kampala, Uganda.
FILE - In this Jan. 14, 2021, file photo, security forces patrol the streets on election day in Kampala, Uganda.

In Ethiopia's Tigray region, internet access has been out since fighting started in early November. That has made it difficult to know about violence and humanitarian concerns there. In Uganda, restrictions on social media sites including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube took effect ahead of a January 14 presidential election. Officials said it was to prevent opposition supporters from organizing possibly dangerous street protests.

Europe's first internet blackout took place in Belarus. The internet went down there for 61 hours after the August 9 presidential election. Service was cut after election officials reported the victory of President Alexander Lukashenko. Protesters claimed the vote was unfair.

Risk to collective freedom

Netblock’s Toker said the public and the international community will begin to see shutdowns as normal. He called it the "greatest risk to our collective freedom in the digital age."

Internet shutdowns are also common in democratic India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has recently used them more often to target his political opposition.

Darrell West is a vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution who has studied internet shutdowns. He said democracies are also using shutdowns.

"The risk is that once one democracy does it, others will be tempted to do the same thing. It may start at the local level to deal with unrest, but then spread more broadly," he said.

I’m Jill Robbins.

Kelvin Chan wrote this story for the Associated Press. Jill Robbins adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

authoritarian – adj. expecting or requiring people to obey rules or laws; not allowing personal freedom

access n. a way of being able to use or get something

impact –v. to have a powerful influence or effect

tempt v. to cause (someone) to do or want to do something even though it may be wrong, bad, or unwise

What do you think of the internet shutdowns? Is it happening in your country? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.