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What Happens When the Internet is Out, and the Government is to Blame?

Governments around the world limit dissent by restricting access to the internet. These shutdowns regularly affect regions where Global Press Journal operates, so we set out to understand how and why they happen.

UPDATE (Fri., Jan. 18, 2019): Econet, a major internet service provider in Zimbabwe, sent a note to its subscribers late on Jan. 17 stating that the company was directed to completely shut down internet services until further notice. The note added that the company is required to comply with that government directive until Zimbabwe’s High Court decides on the issue. “We sincerely apologize for all inconvenience caused by the acts of government which are beyond our reasonable control,” the note states.

Global Press Journal reporters in Zimbabwe report that the internet was shut down Thursday evening but was partially restored Friday. Access to social media sites was barred, but some Zimbabweans continued to access those by using VPNs (virtual private networks.)

When Zimbabweans recently began protesting the high prices of fuel and other necessities, the government there turned off the internet for half a week.

In Democratic Republic of Congo, the government shut down the internet in some parts of the country after a contentious election. That shutdown has continued for weeks.

Internet service was fully restored in Zimbabwe, though not yet in DRC. People in both places are wary of how easily their governments can disconnect them from the rest of the world.

“The blackout happened so fast, like an accident happens when you are not prepared for it,” says Grace Mbiriri, a resident of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital.

Access to information is a right, she says, but the government disregards that right whenever it wants.

“It feels like the government has control over our lives, control over who we talk to and how we talk to them,” Mbiriri says. “It’s frustrating – so frustrating!”

As internet service expands around the world – half the global population is expected to be online this year – some governments are increasingly pressuring internet service providers to go dark at key moments, often to tamp down dissent.

Netblocks, an internet-monitoring organization founded in 2017, can pinpoint internet restrictions to a specific village or town, says Alp Toker.

Toker is the founder of Netblocks and Turkey Blocks, an organization that monitors internet censorship in Turkey. Netblocks knows about an internet shutdown or restriction, wherever it is in the world, within 15 minutes, he says, and can identify whether the shutdown or restriction is due to censorship or a technical difficulty.

The organization sweeps the entire IP-address space of a country to identify trouble spots, Toker says.

Netblocks’ work, as well as other research collected by analysts and experts, provides a snapshot of how, why and where internet shutdowns occur.

Where do internet shutdowns occur?

Over the past decade, internet shutdowns or disruptions have occurred in at least 36 countries, including DRC, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Those are all places where Global Press Journal reporters live and work.

Some countries disrupt the internet regularly. India and Iraq each had 22 shutdowns between July 2015 and June 2016, according to a 2016 study from the Brookings Institution.

There have also been at least 38 internet shutdowns in Indian-administered Kashmir since 2012, including 10 shutdowns in 2016 and another 10 in 2017.

Internet shutdowns in Indian-administered Kashmir have become almost a way of life, Toker says.

“We see shutdowns happening very frequently, almost casually, with very little public awareness of the issue,” Toker says.

But for those who rely on the internet in that region, ill-timed shutdowns can cause damage.

Rouf Bhat, a doctoral student at Kashmir University, says his research requires him to maintain relationships with a network of people who live outside the region. Because he can’t always rely on the internet, his friends in Delhi, India, help him track important events related to his work.

“You never know whether the internet will work tomorrow or not!” he says.

Why do governments shut down the internet?

Shutdowns tend to happen when governments want to quash dissent. Internet security is especially vulnerable in the lead-up to elections.

Between 2015 and 2016, governments in half of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa with upcoming elections ordered internet shutdowns as polls opened, a move that experts say is meant to prevent opposition movements from organizing or reporting election fraud.

The shutdown in DRC is especially concerning, Toker says, because it first occurred during an election in which electronic voting machines were used and during the vote-counting process.

“The blocking was applied at the discretion of the operators,” Toker says, referring to private internet service providers.

That means the shutdown was likely ordered by the government, but each provider made an independent decision about how and when to implement the shutdown.

How does an internet shutdown happen?

When restricting internet access, governments typically need to ask the private sector for a favor, Toker says. Because private telecom operators and internet service providers have power over internet access, governments need them to either shut down all internet services or restrict certain social media platforms, websites or domain names, he adds.

The DRC government likely knew who to contact within the private sector and ordered those companies to turn the internet off, says Toker. He adds that some countries try to avoid a paper trail when doing this, but others governments are more transparent and claim to be doing it legally.

At least 27 countries have laws allowing the government to shut down or take control of telecom networks, according to Access Now, an internet-rights organization. Many of these laws are ambiguous or outdated. For example, India uses a law created in 1885 to regulate telegraphs to justify its many takeovers of digital communications.

In DRC, the Telecommunications Framework Law states that the government may ban the use of “telecommunication facilities, in full or part, for any period of time, as it deems fit, in the interests of public security or national defense, the public telecommunications service, or for any other reason.”

Toker says governments these days use increasingly sophisticated censorship methods. That peaked, he says, during Zimbabwe’s recent shutdown.

“In Zimbabwe, there were multiple techniques used by multiple providers to block over a dozen major international platforms at mass scale, as well as basic internet connectivity, which implies quite a degree of sophistication and technology,” Toker says.

How can you get around a shutdown?

There are a few ways to get around internet restrictions. If there’s a full blackout, a satellite phone or some other method that doesn’t involve the internet are the only options, Toker says.

Total internet shutdowns even nullify The Onion Router, known as TOR, an anti-censorship tool often used by digital experts and activists to bypass internet restrictions.

To get around partial shutdowns, in which social media platforms or messaging services are restricted, internet users can resort to virtual private networks.

But that method might not work for long, Toker says. Governments are finding ways to block VPNs, he says.

How do ordinary people manage an internet shutdown?

Internet shutdowns can have serious consequences.

In Uganda, the government shut down the internet in 2016 on an election day. Aisha Nabukenya, a Ugandan who lives in Kampala, the capital, says she was supposed to receive $250 that day via a mobile money transfer from her sister, who lives in Oman. The money was for medical treatment for Nabukenya’s mother.

“But on that day, social media was shut down, and I wasn’t able to communicate on how I was to get the money,” Nabukenya says. “Our mother’s treatment was delayed, and I was worried about her health.”

The money arrived three days later, Nabukenya says.

“I felt like the government didn’t care about the possibility of someone’s health depended on the availability of the internet,” she says.

In DRC, where the internet has been turned off for weeks as the government grappled with the result of a presidential election marred by accusations of vote tampering, everyday life is difficult.

Grace Kalumuna is a secretary at an organization in Goma, the capital of DRC’s North Kivu province. That city hugs the Rwandan border, so she says she has crossed the border to respond to emails. She says it’s not fair that she has to travel to do her job, but she recognizes that she’s one of the lucky ones.

“The [internet shutdown] will make us fall into extreme poverty, because many people cannot work in this condition anymore,” Kalumuna says.

Nakisanze Segawa of GPJ Uganda, Linda Mujuru of GPJ Zimbabwe, Aliya Bashir of GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir and Noella Nyirabihogo of GPJ Democratic Republic of Congo contributed to this story.

Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated one interview from Luganda. Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ, translated one interview from French.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated DRC’s internet situation at the time of publication.