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Weapons of control, shields of impunity: Internet shutdowns in 2022

From Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, authorities are imposing internet shutdowns at staggering rates. In 2022 alone, governments and other actors disrupted the internet at least 187 times across 35 countries — breaking our #KeepItOn record for the number of countries to hit the kill switch in a single year. Not only are shutdowns resurging after a decrease at the height of the pandemic, they’re lasting longer, targeting specific populations, and are being wielded when people need a connection the most — including during humanitarian crises, mass protests, and active conflict and war.

For a full breakdown of the global trends and triggers, and regional deep dives, read our new report, Weapons of control, shields of impunity: Internet shutdowns in 2022.

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India implemented 84 shutdowns in 2022, and remains the country with the highest number of recorded shutdowns in the world — for the fifth consecutive year. At the same time, more countries outside India repeatedly wielded shutdowns as a weapon for control and a shield for violence and oppression. During Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian military cut internet access at least 22 times, engaging in cyberattacks and deliberately destroying telecommunications infrastructure. The Myanmar military persisted in keeping people in the dark for extended periods, targeting areas where coup resistance is strongest. The Iranian regime responded to protests sparked by the death of 22-year old Mahsa (Jina) Amini by imposing 18 shutdowns, a further escalation of its repressive tactics.

Authorities or aggressors in all 35 countries imposed shutdowns during protests, active conflict, school examinations, elections, periods of political instability, or high-profile events like religious holidays or visits by government officials with an ultimate goal to assert control and silence voices. A majority of these shutdowns also provided cover for perpetrators to commit human rights abuses with impunity. 

Five countries imposed shutdowns related to elections in 2022. The #KeepItOn 2022 Elections Watch also logged several important wins, with countries with a history of internet shutdowns, such as the Gambia, passing through an election period without disruption, and Kenya reaffirming its commitment to #KeepItOn despite statutory body, the Nation Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), calling for the suspension of Facebook for its failure to remove hateful content from the platform. We are watching 17 elections in 2023.

Trends show a pattern of entrenchment

Grave human rights abuses and violence shrouded by shutdowns on the rise

All internet shutdowns violate human rights. In 2022, 133 of the 187 total shutdowns occurred alongside some form of violence, compared to 112 in 2021, 99 in 2020, and 75 in 2019. In some contexts, like Iran, authorities responded to protests with brutal crackdowns and internet shutdowns, and in other contexts, such as during conflicts and war, governments, warring parties, or military regimes deployed shutdowns in apparent attempts to hide human rights and humanitarian law violations such as murder, torture, rape, and other war crimes. Missile strikes led to 15 shutdowns in 2022 — 14 launched by the Russian military on cities across Ukraine and one launched by Saudi-led coalition forces on a telecommunications facility in Yemen.

Repeat offenses and prolonged shutdowns

As the COVID-19 pandemic continued to recede in many parts of the world in 2022, shutdowns outstripped pre-pandemic levels and reached grim milestones. The number of shutdowns in countries other than India topped 100 for the first time, and nine countries — Bangladesh, India, Iran, Jordan, Libya, Myanmar, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine (imposed by Russia) — had at least four shutdowns in 2022, compared with seven countries with at least four shutdowns in 2019. During political upheaval, protest movements, violence, and active conflict, millions of people across these nine countries experienced frequent and severe shutdowns with disturbing regularity. 

We also saw prolonged shutdowns continue in full force, affecting entire regions and countries. In 2022, a record 16 shutdowns carried over from 2021, including a protracted shutdown in Tigray, Ethiopia, a blanket shutdown in regions across Myanmar, and nine continuous platform blocks. As 2022 rolls into 2023, another set of 16 shutdowns are still in place in many of the same countries, with 12 of these having lasted at least one year. 

Targeted shutdowns and their immeasurable harms

As we’ve documented in recent years, some governments are becoming more sophisticated and intentional about how they implement shutdowns, evidently to more directly target certain groups, as well as to minimize economic repercussions. In 2022, 23 countries implemented or maintained 28 communications platform blocks, similar to the 22 countries with 29 platform shutdowns in 2021. Authorities and other actors, such as military aggressors, continued to impose targeted mobile network shutdowns. This was a popular tactic during protests (26 times), as a means of silencing people while allowing wealthy elites, government officials, and certain businesses to operate on broadband, fixed-line internet.

Fighting back: how our movement is growing

The disastrous impact of these acts of digital authoritarianism motivates Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition to keep going, and the network of partners working to end internet shutdowns has, in turn, grown stronger and more diverse.

The #KeepItOn coalition has grown to over 300 organizations in 105 countries committed to fighting internet shutdowns globally. Our community is rooted in collaboration and solidarity, with experts from across fields coming together to learn from each other and advance shared advocacy goals. In particular, coalition members in the measurement community and on the ground work tirelessly to identify, report, and verify internet shutdowns, and to guide strategies for resistance and resilience. People and communities who have been most directly impacted by shutdowns have shown incredible resourcefulness and resolve in advancing efforts to document shutdowns, as well as human rights violations taking place alongside them.

We continue to galvanize overwhelming support from the international community in the fight to #KeepItOn. From the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issuing its first dedicated report on internet shutdowns shining a spotlight on the devastating impact they have on human lives, to governments taking action to denounce government-mandated shutdowns, to more and more high-level experts speaking up against the weaponization of internet shutdowns during conflict and crises, we brought internet shutdowns to the center stage of global discussions.

The #KeepItOn coalition and its partners have leveraged strategic litigation in various countries to bring an end to ongoing shutdowns or condemnation and accountability for past disruptions. In 2022,both the ECOWAS Court for West Africa and the High Court of Calcutta in India passed landmark rulings against the use of shutdowns in Nigeria and West Bengal, respectively, and momentum is building in similar cases that are still in progress around the globe.

What’s next

While we made important strides in 2022, it is clear that the fight against internet shutdowns will continue, and waging that fight will require continued investments in the strength, diversity, and solidarity of our movement. We call on all stakeholders to do their part in advancing our cause to uphold free expression and keep people connected.

To governments: Commit in law, policy, and practice to #KeepItOn at all times, and encourage other states to do the same.

To tech companies: Collaborate with civil society to share details about how and when shutdowns impacting your services occur, and take the steps necessary to make your platforms and services resistant to shutdowns wherever possible. In particular, for social media platforms, make the appropriate investments in high-quality, human-led content moderation, reducing incentives and excuses for internet shutdowns, particularly in moments of crisis. 

To civil society: Join us! The #KeepItOn coalition is growing, and we welcome you among our ranks.

To journalists, technologists, lawyers, and more: We welcome the opportunity to partner with you in documenting, circumventing, and pushing back against internet shutdowns wherever they occur.