Internet shutdowns surge from India to Russia after Covid dip

Authorities worldwide imposed Internet shutdowns some 182 times in total, data compiled for the report show, signaling a ‘dramatic resurgence’ in digital blackouts after relative respite in 2020. — Fiber cable photo created by freepik -

India disrupted or blocked Internet access at least 106 times last year, making it the world’s biggest offender for the fourth straight year, according to a report from digital rights advocacy group Access Now.

Authorities worldwide imposed Internet shutdowns some 182 times in total, data compiled for the report show, signaling a “dramatic resurgence” in digital blackouts after relative respite in 2020.

“What could have been a story about the global decline of internet shutdowns after the pandemic instead reveals a return to the rights-harming tactics of the pre-pandemic period,” Access Now said in the report.

Myanmar cut connectivity at least 15 times, while seven countries including Burkina Faso and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) hit the kill switch for the first time. Shutdowns were increasingly initiated in active conflict zones such as Ethiopia’s Tigray region and the Gaza Strip, the report said.

Curtailed access to social media sites and messaging platforms prompted spikes in demand for Virtual Private Networks from Nigeria to Kazakhstan in early 2022 as people looked for ways to circumvent blocks.

“Internet shutdowns and the rise of authoritarianism go hand-in-hand,” Access Now fellow Marianne Diaz Hernandez said in a statement accompanying the report. “But we – civil society, the tech industry, UN bodies – also proved how powerful people can be in resisting unstable online despotism.”

Prior to its invasion of Ukraine, Russia ramped up censorship tactics from throttling to full platform blocks. On March 14, VPN demand there peaked at more than 26 times pre-invasion levels on March 14, according to UK-based digital privacy and security research group Top10VPN.

“Russia’s escalated censorship in 2021 set the stage for what we’re witnessing in 2022,” Felicia Anthonio, co-author of the Access Now report, said via email. While VPNs have helped some Russians circumvent online restrictions, authorities have curbed access to these to silence dissent, she said.

Russia has reaped the biggest shutdown-related economic costs so far this year – as much as US$2.9bil – amid a broader crackdown on social and mass media criticism of its invasion of Ukraine, according to separate data compiled by Top10VPN. In total, shutdowns have cost the world economy about US$21.3bil since 2019, it said.

“Shutdowns leave devastating impacts on people’s lives,” Anthonio said. “Governments must begin to call out their peers and telcos must push back on shutdown orders, and publicly expose them.” – Bloomberg

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