How key a role social media played in the turmoil – which touched over ten countries, brought down four dictators, triggered at least two civil wars and destabilised the area to this day – is a matter of debate, but it seems clear that some beleaguered tyrants felt threatened by it. On January 27, 2011, two days after protesters had started amassing in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak took the country offline, and continued to block services for five days. In Libya, Colonel Gaddafi followed suit, reacting to a budding uprising with a barrage of internet disruptions culminating in a four-day-long shutdown on March 3. The move drew international condemnation, prompting the United Nations to speak up against the suppression of freedom of speech.
For the dictators, it arguably backfired. Jared Cohen, a former US State Department staffer who had gone on to join Google’s “think-do tank” Google Ideas and was in Egypt during the revolution, said in a July 2011 interview that Mubarak’s shutdown had motivated many young Egyptians, who may never have joined the protests otherwise. By the end of the year, former president Mubarak would be standing trial in a Cairo courtroom and Gaddafi would be dead.
Access Now, a digital rights advocacy group founded in 2009 in the aftermath of a spate of internet disruptions in Iran, has been keeping a tally of internet shutdowns from 2016 onwards. Put the numbers on a chart, and you can see a line hopping upwards year after year. In 2016, Access Now reported 75 shutdowns; in 2017, 106; in 2018, 198; in 2019, 213. In 2020, for the first time in half a decade, the group noticed a decrease from the previous year, down to 155 internet shutdowns in 29 countries. But, once you remember that 2020 was a pandemic year – a period of lockdowns, working-from-home, and extreme reliance on the internet to do everything from buying groceries to attending school – that number nevertheless seems enormous. “It was surprising to see governments – and we continue to see them – shutting down the internet during a time when, increasingly, we have all realised the importance of staying connected,” Felicia Anthonio, a campaign co-ordinator at Access Now based in Ghana, says.
The rise in confirmed shutdowns may partly be a consequence of increased awareness and reporting. Observers and diplomats, however, believe that turning off the internet has become an increasingly common tactic. “It’s really a crisis for freedom of expression in many respects. And it’s definitely a crisis that’s expanding around the world,” says David Kaye, a professor of law at University of California, Irvine and the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression between 2014 and 2020. “What’s worse, this tool is becoming almost normalised, even in places where the rule of law really should exist.”
Although shutdowns might seem a hallmark of autocracy, the worst offender is the world’s largest democracy: according to Access Now, India accounted for 109 internet shutdowns throughout 2020 – all of them enforced at a local level, such as in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region, which went through 18 months of on-off shutdown. The record-holder for the longest shutdown ever is Myanmar, which kept several towns in Rakhine and Chin State – two northern states torn apart by ethnic violence and armed clashes – offline for 19 months; in February, the junta made a point of putting an end to the situation, and then unplugged the whole country.
Most governments do not acknowledge that a shutdown is underway, variously blaming the disruption on technical problems or foreign cyberattacks, or simply lying about the reality on the ground. When a rationale is provided, shutdowns are described as last-ditch measures to prevent violence, defend national security and, increasingly, to stem the spread of “fake news” online. (On February 6, Telenor cited the “circulation of fake news, stability of the nation and interest of the public” as the Myanmar government’s legal ground for the shutdown.)