Digital siege: Internet cuts become favored tool of regimes

by Jeremy

Researchers say that regimes often cut online access in response to protests or civil unrest, particularly around elections, as they try to keep their grip on power by restricting the flow of information. It’s the digital equivalent of seizing control of the local TV and radio station that was part of the pre-internet playbook for despots.

“Internet shutdowns have been massively underreported or misreported over the years,” said Alp Toker, founder of internet monitoring organization Netblocks. He said that the world is “starting to realize what’s happening,” documenting efforts as he expands. Last year there were 93 major internet shutdowns in 21 countries, according to a report by Top10VPN, a U.K.-based digital privacy and security research group. The list doesn’t include places like China and North Korea, where the government controls or restricts the internet. The report said that shutdowns could range from all-encompassing internet blackouts to blocking social media platforms or severely throttling internet speeds.

Internet cuts have political, economic, and humanitarian costs, experts warned. The effects are exacerbated by COVID-19 lockdowns that are forcing activities like school classes online.

The shutdowns play into a broader battle over control of the internet. In the West, efforts to rein in social media platforms have raised competing concerns about restricting free speech and limiting harmful information, the latter sometimes used by authoritarian regimes to justify clampdowns.

In Myanmar, internet access was cut for about 24 hours last weekend in an apparent bid to head off protests against the army’s seizing of power and the detention of leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her allies. By Sunday afternoon, internet users reported data access on their mobile phones was suddenly restored.

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