Bleeding lives and money: the cost of internet shutdowns from Turkey to Bahrain

This week Turkey shut off the internet in the cities of Diyarbakır, Mardin, and Siirt, among others, after people protested against the detention of local mayors for alleged ties to terrorism groups. Turkey Blocks, a member of Access Now’s #KeepitOn campaign, confirmed the outage in the Southeast region on Wednesday:

Turkey has the dubious honor of joining three other countries with ongoing internet shutdowns: Bahrain, Chad, and Ethiopia.

In Bahrain, the government has persistently disrupted the internet for more than 100 days in Duraz because people are protesting the exile of a prominent cleric. This disruption is more targeted than the shutdown in Turkey, and understanding its scope and structure required an in-depth technical investigation by #KeepItOn member Bahrain Watch.

Meanwhile, the government of Chad has blocked social media in the country since April 22, 2016 — including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Viber — after a contentious election resulting in a fifth presidential term for Idriss Déby.

Ethiopia has also blocked social media in its Oromia region several times over the past few months. Recent protests led to a strong government reprisal in which 100 people died, many from falling into a ditch during a stampede. The government responded by authorizing a new state of emergency that criminalizes the use of social media, and by appealing a ruling in favor of the Zone 9 blogger collective. Mobile internet remains cut off throughout Ethiopia and at least 500 people have been killed by government forces since the beginning of the year.

As these examples show, internet shutdowns directly harm human rights and serve as early warning signs of atrocities. Moreover, shutdowns separate families, block emergency services, and create a media vacuum in which human rights defenders can be targeted and killed — and we’ve seen many of these pernicious effects play out in all four countries identified above.

Over the past month, we have gained new insights to the impact of internet shutdowns, going beyond the damage to human rights. A report by the Brookings Institution in early October found that the global economy lost $2.4 billion because of internet shutdowns in the one-year period between 2015 and 2016. The estimates for loss, which the report acknowledges are conservative, show that India alone lost nearly $1 billion because of its repeated disruptions — which fly in the face of President Narendra Modi’s stated commitment to supporting the internet economy through his party’s Digital India program. The Brookings report excludes factors such as tax revenues derived from mobile banking, and that means the economic damage could in fact be even more significant.

Today the Global Network Initiative, working with the accounting firm Deloitte and supported by Facebook, released a new report that sheds even more light on how shutdowns damage the economy. The new report uses a different methodology than the Brookings Institution by accounting for fluctuations in the internet economy, such as multiplier effects through broadband investment. The report estimates that countries with high connectivity and high per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) can lose up to $141 million per day of disruption. This falls to $20 million per day in countries with medium connectivity and medium per capita GDP; and $3 million per day in low-connectivity countries with low per capita GDP. The report provides ways to adjust the calculations based on factors like population and whether a connection is throttled or completely disrupted.

Perhaps most importantly, the new Deloitte report clearly states that when shutdowns are longer, there are multiplier effects, because they impact the confidence of users, businesses, and even foreign investors. Shutdowns are like avalanches that shear through the foundation for economic growth, wrecking lives and businesses along the way. That’s especially troubling for countries seeking to empower people and strengthen their economies. The report shows that there is damage even if only a single region is shut down, because businesses dependent on supply chains will switch to reliable suppliers in other regions. Finally, the report highlights the negative impact of blocking social media and messaging services, which are increasingly used by businesses and consumers to sell products and services.

Shutdowns impact human rights and the economy

Of course, looking at shutdowns solely through an economic lens risks ignoring human rights violations. A “digital curfew” that keep the internet “open for business” during the day but shuts it down at night — when internet users and activists gather online to communicate — still violates the right to free expression. This is exactly what happened in Gabon during contested elections.

We’ve made tremendous strides in the struggle against shutdowns, and the new reports by Brookings and Deloitte are helping to broaden and deepen the conversation. Currently, the #KeepitOn campaign includes more than 100 organizations from nearly 50 countries, including leading civil society organizations from countries that are directly impacted by shutdowns. In July 2016, the U.N. Human Rights Council unequivocally condemned internet disruptions, and through the Global Network Initiative, technology companies spoke out against them. The world’s largest technology association, the GSM Association, issued strong guidelines on what it calls Service Restriction Orders.

And yet, at this very moment, people are being cut off from the internet in several countries, all around the world. So we still have plenty of work to do. We can use your help. Go to to sign up as an organization or an individual, and use the hashtag #KeepItOn on social media to join our conversation.