2016: The Year of Internet Shutdowns

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Governments around the world shutdown Internet access over fifty times in 2016, Lyndal Rowlands reported for the Inter Press Service (IPS) in December of that year. Around the world, governments shutting down Internet access limited freedom of speech, swayed elections, and damaged economies. “In the worst cases,” Rowlands wrote, “Internet shutdowns have been associated with human rights violations,” as happened in Ethiopia and Uganda. The IPS report quoted a senior official at Access Now, a digital rights organization: “What we have found is that Internet shutdowns go hand in hand with atrocities,” said Deji Olukotun of Access Now.

Many countries intentionally blacked out Internet access during elections and to quell protest. Not only do these shutdowns restrict freedom of speech, they also hurt economies around the world. IPS reported that a Brookings Institute study found that Internet shutdowns cost countries $2.4 billion in 2015. Rowlands noted that the biggest losses were in India (an estimated $968 million), Saudi Arabia ($465 million) and Morocco ($320 million).

The IPS reported noted that Olukotun, the Open Access official, observed that one way to stop government shutdowns is for internet providers to resist government demands. “Telecommunications companies can push back on government orders, or at least document them to show what’s been happening, to at least have a paper trail,” Olukotun observed. He also called on international organizations—including the International Telecommunications Union, which is the UN agency for information and communication technologies—to issue statements in response to specific incidents.

Corporate news coverage of this topic tends to focus on specific countries. For instance, in September 2016, CNN reported on the extraordinary Internet shutdown in Gabon. While this coverage made passing reference to Access Now’s findings on Internet disruptions around the world, CNN focused on the specific details of the shutdown in Gabon, which included Internet “curfews” and the government’s total blocking of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. A February 2017 New York Times report focused on Internet shutdowns in Cameroon, Gambia, and the Republic of Congo. This report also cited the Brookings Institute report on the economic costs of shutdowns. However, corporate coverage tends not to address the larger, global scope of Internet shutdowns—and, unlike the IPS report, these reports tend not to focus on how Internet providers might resist government demands.

Source: Lyndal Rowlands, “More Than 50 Internet Shutdowns in 2016,” Inter Press Service, December 30, 2016, http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/12/more-than-50-internet-shutdowns-in-2016/.

Student Researcher: Hugo Sousa (Citrus College)

Faculty Evaluator: Andy Lee Roth (Citrus College)