#KeepItOn Report - The return of digital authoritarianism: internet shutdowns in 2021

Internet shutdowns in 2021: the return of digital authoritarianism

In 2021, Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition documented 182 internet shutdowns across 34 countries. This shows a dramatic resurgence of this oppressive form of control compared to 159 shutdowns recorded in 29 countries in 2020. For a full exploration of trends and triggers over the last year, read our new report, The return of digital authoritarianism: internet shutdowns in 2021.

Censorship, information regulation, and isolation from the outside world are the basic components of a government’s descent into digital authoritarianism — an internet shutdown is a proven all-in-one tool that achieves ultimate control in a single, swift action.

Internet shutdowns are always dangerous, and 2021 highlighted just how vicious they can be. The world witnessed governments implement blackouts throughout protests, civil unrest, wars, and crises, while setting a precarious precedent for 2022. Last year began with authorities in Ethiopia, Myanmar, and India shutting down the internet to quell dissent and assert control over populations. Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip brought down towers supporting essential communications infrastructure as well as newsrooms for Al Jazeera and the Associated Press, while escalating censorship in Russia signaled what was yet to come.

A close look at the 2021 data shows that what could have been a story about the global decline of internet shutdowns after the pandemic instead reveals a return to the rights-harming tactics of the pre-pandemic period. There was an increase of 23 shutdowns from 2020 to 2021.

This global snapshot highlights data from Access Now’s new report, The return of digital authoritarianism: internet shutdowns in 2021, including key facts and figures, and real-life cases. The full report contextualizes internet shutdown data with additional research and analysis of emerging trends. It is our hope this report serves as a warning: ignore internet shutdowns at your peril. They are never a sign of respect for human rights, a healthy democracy, or effective governance. Read the full report.

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Prolonged shutdowns: Entering 2021, millions of people in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, India’s Jammu and Kashmir region, Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and Myanmar’s Rakhine state continued to live through multi-year shutdowns. This marks a dangerous trend that certain governments are prolonging their interference, further exacerbating the devastating harm they cause. In Ethiopia, the Tigray region has been experiencing an internet shutdown since November 2020: that’s 18 months and counting.

Increased use of mobile shutdowns during protests: In 2021, 18 governments including Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Chad, Cuba, Eswatini, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Pakistan, Senegal, South Sudan, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uganda imposed mobile internet shutdowns during protests. Cutting mobile access to crack down on public dissent is an increasing trend globally, and these specific shutdowns were implemented at least 37 times in 2021, compared to 15 the previous year.

Targeted blocking of communications platforms: Authorities responded to public criticism and dissent by restricting specific communications platforms in 22 countries. For example, in Pakistan, authorities cut access to major social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, ahead of planned anti-government protests. Authorities in other countries went even further, criminalizing the use of, or blocking access to, virtual private networks (VPNs) to prevent people from bypassing censorship.

Advancing technologies: combining throttling, blocking, and network shutdowns: In 2021, the #KeepItOn coalition detected 10 instances of throttling — the artificial restricting of data flow through a network — five of which took place simultaneously or overlapping with another type of shutdown. Jordan, Russia, and Uganda throttled in combination with communication platform restrictions, making it impossible to share videos or images of human rights violations. People suffered through throttling in Algeria, India, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Myanmar, Russia, and Uganda. Governments are increasingly testing and employing emerging techniques and tactics to hinder the detection and circumvention of their blockings.

Shutdowns targeting specific locations and populations: Over the past five years, we have witnessed governments target their shutdowns to specific regions, locations, and more recently, even attempt to deny internet access to specific individuals. Targeted shutdowns are often a sign that a government is trying to silence a specific population, further marginalizing already vulnerable communities.

Triggers in 2021

Last year, authorities continued to cut or slowed internet access, blocked communications platforms, or otherwise interfered with online communications during protests, social or political unrest, elections, and even during active conflicts, often as a means of asserting or maintaining power. That included imposing internet blackouts during military coups in Sudan and Myanmar, and hitting the kill switch during school exams in Algeria, Jordan, Sudan, and Syria. Governments also continued the practice of shutting down the internet during exams in many countries.

Protests, political turmoil, and coups: Authorities in Burkina Faso, Cuba, Chad, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Iran, Jordan, Myanmar, Niger, Pakistan, Sudan, and many other countries disrupted or entirely cut connectivity during protests in 2021. Why? Governments use network disruptions as a tool not only to thwart and disarticulate the protest itself, but also to hide the human rights violations that are commonly linked to security forces’ crackdown on protesters, particularly in countries that have authoritarian regimes or weak democracies.

Spotlight: the Sudan coup

Sudanese authorities shut down the internet on five different occasions in 2021. On October 25, the military shut down the internet as they seized power from a transitional government in a military coup, arbitrarily detaining government officials and the Prime Minister. People of Sudan took to the streets to denounce the military’s actions, and were met with additional network disruptions and violence by military forces, which resulted in the killing of seven people and injury of approximately 140 others.

War and conflict: Across the globe, warring parties have intensified attacks on essential civilian services during conflict and war, including specifically targeting telecommunications infrastructure. Internet shutdowns during conflict put lives in danger and deprive people of access to life-saving information, both inside and outside the conflict zone. Data collected through our STOP project on shutdowns in Azerbaijan, Syria, and Yemen over the past five years reveal a pattern: internet infrastructure is becoming a military target during active conflicts.

In 2021, we documented internet shutdowns in active conflict zones in the Gaza Strip, as the Israeli military engaged in bombing attacks, and Myanmar, where the military seized and fought to maintain control. Ethiopia’s Tigray region has been in the dark since 2020, in a context of ongoing civil war, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing.

Spotlight: The Myanmar military’s ongoing digital coup

On February 1, 2021, as the military seized control of the government, there were multiple reports of internet shutdowns across Myanmar. Since then, the junta has periodically shut down multiple communications channels nationwide, controlling the spread of news and information, and providing cover for the arrests of key members of the political opposition and civil society. In May and June, it was reported that the junta was white-listing services and websites, and blocking people’s access to channels and platforms they deemed a threat. Through the second half of 2021, targeted internet blackouts were deployed across regions the military was attempting to capture. To date, large scale internet disruptions, censorship, and targeted internet shutdowns are still dominating the country’s communication systems, leaving the people in a state of isolation and fear.

Elections: Internet shutdowns during an election are a disaster for democracy. In 2021, the #KeepItOn coalition documented seven election-related internet shutdowns in six countries: Chad, The Republic of the Congo, Iran, Niger, Uganda, and Zambia. This is lower than our 2020 record with 10 election-related shutdowns in seven countries.

Exams: Internet shutdowns during school examinations remain a common practice, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa region. In 2021, we documented exam-related shutdowns in Algeria, Jordan, Sudan, and Syria. Other countries such as Ethiopia, India, Iraq, and Mauritania have imposed shutdowns over the past years to prevent cheating during school examinations.

Five years of shutdowns: Data from 2016 to 2021, gathered collaboratively and confirmed through the global #KeepItOn coalition, shows that, apart from 2020 when the global COVID-19 pandemic broke out, we have not recorded a significant decrease in shutdowns globally, nor have we seen the number of countries imposing them diminish.

Challenges and opportunities

While 2021 was a devastating year for internet shutdowns, people from all corners of the globe banded together to push back through creative advocacy, high level forums, and legal interventions.

International actions: In an unparalleled global leap to legitimize the fight to #KeepItOn, G7 participants issued a communiqué to condemn “actions by states to intentionally disrupt their own populations’ access to, or dissemination of, information, knowledge, and data online,” while Special Rapporteur Clément Voule submitted Ending Internet shutdowns: a path forward to the 47th Session of the Human Rights Council.

Court challenges: In bold moves proven successful in years prior, civil society initiated cornerstone legal challenges in Nigeria, Sudan, and Zambia in 2021. As authorities’ use of shutdowns in Africa increased, so did the drive and opportunity to fight the disruptions in court, establish legal precedents, and build the case law against them — a hard-fought win for civil society activists, human right defenders, and other stakeholders around the world.

Equipping civil society and people at risk to circumvent and resist: As authorities developed novel approaches to censorship and online restrictions, Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition matched them with dynamism, taking action-oriented, creative, and proactive steps to ensure civil society actors have the tools to resist. Together, in 2021, we designed a series of resources to help people anticipate, navigate, and document the internet shutdowns that undermine our democracies and damage human rights, including:

2021 was a year that reflects the continued challenge of preventing government authorities, those engaged in armed conflict, and military juntas from leveraging internet shutdowns as tools for control. But our successes are a reminder that, collectively, we can overcome these challenges.

What happens next? The #KeepItOn coalition and the ongoing fight

This global snapshot illustrates the internet shutdown data collected by the #KeepItOn coalition — a global network of over 282 organizations from 105 countries that work together to end internet shutdowns around the world. Looking to the future, we draw inspiration from the progress the #KeepItOn coalition has been making despite the global increase in disruptions, from the strengthening of coordination and collaboration among stakeholders globally, to the court challenges in Africa, to the growth in resources and capacity to monitor, circumvent, and document disruptions. To maintain this progress in the years ahead, we must strengthen our resistance, and continue to build pressure to prevent the network disruptions that are causing so much harm. We urge you to join the fight to #KeepItOn.