Taxonomy of a shutdown: 8 ways governments restrict access to the internet, and how to #KeepItOn
Network interferences are impacting the lives of billions of people around the world. Different types of deliberate internet shutdowns can block the free press and access to life-saving information, undermine democratic elections and facilitate coups, and even hide war crimes and genocide, among other devastating impacts.
What is less well understood is how perpetrators, typically governments, technically implement them. That matters because it affects our capacity to fight back. Our new paper, A taxonomy of internet shutdowns: the technologies behind network interference, scrutinizes eight internet shutdown types and helps technologists and digital help desk practitioners better understand, prepare for, circumvent, and document the shutdown of networks.
Why technical implementation matters
When a government or rogue actor implements a shutdown, civil society works together to figure out what is happening and help those impacted get connected, document the shutdown, and push those responsible to restore access to the network, apps, or services. Civil society actors include companies and nonprofit groups that detect shutdowns, technologists that work to attribute the shutdowns and assist in circumvention, and rights groups that document and advocate against shutdowns, among others.
When these actors have an understanding of the possible technical implementations for a shutdown, and the reasons an actor may carry out a particular type, they are better equipped to anticipate and help affected populations minimize the impacts of the disruption. They are also better able to attribute a shutdown and gather evidence for holding perpetrators accountable for their actions, including in courts of law or international fora like the United Nations.
A taxonomy of internet shutdowns
There are many types of internet shutdowns, depending on the technology a government or other actor has at its disposal, and what the perpetrator aims to achieve. In our paper, we identify eight different types of shutdown, based on the method of implementation:
For each of the eight types, we provide key information to help technologists prepare for or respond to a shutdown, including information that may be useful for predicting a shutdown in a specific country or region, or attributing the disruption to a particular actor. We also indicate whether Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline can be a resource for assistance and mitigation.
Simultaneously with the release of the paper, we also propose a refined definition for an internet shutdown, which we are workshopping at RightsCon on June 6-10, in collaboration with other members of the #KeepItOn coalition.
Determining how a shutdown has been carried out can reveal a lot. Not only can it help us figure out who is behind the shutdown, it can expose potential motivations and intent, as well as how likely it is that a perpetrator will continue to hit the kill switch.
As international pressure mounts against this form of “collective punishment,” governments that want to manipulate the flow of information online to censor people or hide their own misdeeds may use targeted shutdowns, throttling, app blocking, or other less obvious forms of disruption, to escape accountability. We hope that by educating more technologists in characterizing disruptions, it will be harder for them to obscure or excuse their actions.
Who should read this paper
As it stands, there are few people with the skills, knowledge, and technology necessary to effectively mitigate shutdowns. It doesn’t have to be that way. For better resilience to network interference, we should embed easily deployed technological solutions into communications infrastructure by default. This will require collective advances across multiple industries, government policy, and civil society projects, but it is a question of will rather than possibility. This paper is a foundational step, aiming to grow the number of people with the prerequisite understanding of technical interference to innovate for resilience. That is why it is relevant not only for digital help desk practitioners, but also the following people, among others:
- Network measurement tool developers, so they can design further tests to fully enumerate internet shutdowns;
- Technologists working on standards, to integrate shutdowns resilience into new communications and networking standards;
- Consumer communications product designers, to make their products more resilient to shutdowns, or design new products specifically to mitigate shutdowns;
- Technologists supporting the #KeepItOn coalition, to inform the development of a more comprehensive data schema to record shutdowns in more detail;
- Systems engineers at tech companies, with a view to utilizing the connection maps and product delivery monitoring systems of existing platforms to detect shutdowns;
- VPN vendors and circumvention app developers, so they can make product improvements to handle more shutdown situations;
- Telecommunications engineers, to center shutdowns resilience in the design of communications systems;
- #KeepItOn coalition members, to contribute to the design of a clear, concise methodology for better community recording of shutdowns;
- Academic researchers, to assist with their understanding of shutdowns and encourage more research to measure the human impact of shutdowns;
- CSIRT incident handlers, to provide a base-level understanding of the technical problem space, so they can better assist entities or individuals experiencing shutdowns; and
- Journalists reporting on technology issues, to improve their technical understanding such that reporting of shutdowns in news media is more detailed and accurate.
If you’re experiencing or anticipating an internet shutdown, reach out
The method for mitigating an internet shutdown will depend on the type of shutdown and the particular circumstances. We make general suggestions for each type of shutdown we classify. However, if you are already experiencing or anticipate an internet shutdown in the near future and need emergency technical assistance, we encourage you to contact a CiviCERT help desk or Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline.
Please note that our paper assumes a moderate level of technological expertise. It is intended to deepen the knowledge of technologists and digital help desk practitioners, among others. Here’s where you can find more general information about internet shutdowns:
Learn more about the #KeepItOn campaign and coalition, including the #KeepItOn FAQ.
Listen to the Killswitch podcast, which features experts and technologists across the coalition.
Check out our Election Watch initiative where we flag elections we are monitoring for network interference.
Read the #KeepItOn Internet Shutdowns and Elections Handbook, a guide for election observers, embassies, activists, and journalists.