Governments around the world shut down the internet more than 50 times in 2016 – suppressing elections, slowing economies and limiting free speech.
In the worst cases internet shutdowns have been associated with human rights violations, Deji Olukotun, senior global advocacy manager at digital rights organisation Access Now told IPS.
“What we have found is that internet shutdowns go hand in hand with atrocities,” said Olukotun.
“In Ethiopia there’s been consistent blocking this year of social media and internet.” Dozens of people have died in protests in Ethiopia in 2016, “many of them during the kind of blackout where it’s difficult to report on what’s happening,” he said.
Several leaders used internet shutdowns to affect democratic processes, including elections.
“In Uganda in February 2016 there was a shutdown of social media networks by President Museveni and that again happened in Gambia (in December) surrounding the election,” Olukotun added.
In other cases, three governments chose to shut down the internet because they thought that it would stop students from cheating on their exams, he said.
However governments do not seem to have taken into account the potential repercussions of the shutdowns, beyond the limits of free speech.
According to a recent Brookings Institute paper, internet shutdowns cost countries $2.4 billion in 2015.
The biggest losses were in India, $968 million, Saudi Arabia, $465 million and Morocco which lost $320 million. According to Brookings these are conservative estimates which only take into account reductions in economic activity and not tax losses or drops in investor confidence.
However while many governments chose to limit internet access in 2016, many others invested billions in expanding internet access.
“On the whole most governments want to expand internet access,” said Olukotun. “Many of them see it as an opportunity to participate in the global economy and be competitive.”
Olukotun noted that there were many ways that internet access can be limited, beyond state-sanctioned shutdowns.
“It’s important that the internet that people do get online to gives them access to the whole internet and it’s not just a walled garden,” he said.
Olukotun added that shutdowns were happening more often and that governments were employing more sophisticated methods to ensure that internet users could not get around the shutdowns. While internet users in Uganda were able to use Virtual Private Networks to get around shutdowns earlier this year, other governments have used more sophisticated and targeted methods to disrupt the internet of certain groups.
In other cases governments banned specific social media networks.
When it comes to shutdowns, Olukotun said that one way to stop them 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,” he said.
He also noted that international organisations such as the International Telecommunications Union – the UN agency for information and communication technologies – could also do more by issuing statements in response to specific incidents.