KeepItOn 2023 Report Internet Shutdowns

The most violent year: internet shutdowns in 2023

By nearly every measure, 2023 is the worst year of internet shutdowns ever recorded — highlighting an alarming and dangerous trend for human rights. As we document in our new report, Shrinking democracy, growing violence: internet shutdowns in 2023, governments around the world continue to shut down the internet and critical digital communication platforms to muzzle expression, block access to life-saving information, and cover up heinous crimes against humanity. 

In 2023, Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition documented 283 shutdowns in 39 countries. These are staggering results, marking the highest number of shutdown incidents in a single year since we began our monitoring in 2016. This reflects an additional 82 shutdowns, or a 41% increase, from 2022, when we recorded 201 shutdowns in 40 countries. It’s also a 28% increase from 2019, which was the previous record high with 221 shutdowns. As we note in our recent update on the #KeepItOn Shutdown Optimization Project (STOP), these figures include the new data we added in 2023 to document existing platform blocks and other internet shutdowns beginning in prior years.

The gravity of our findings this year cannot be overstated. For the first time since 2016, conflicts emerged as the leading driver for internet shutdowns, and shutdowns intersecting with natural disasters surfaced as a concerning new trend. Even as we saw momentum grow against the use of internet shutdowns and some key offenders chart a new course, disruptions continued to emerge as the go-to tool for both democratic and authoritarian regimes to suppress fundamental human rights. 

Below is a global overview of the data and trends that we unpack in detail in the full report. We share these excerpts and figures with an important proviso: while we discuss quantitative analysis around the number of shutdowns and how they are deployed, we must first center the people and communities who are impacted by them. Tens of thousands of lives have been taken — from Palestine to Myanmar, Sudan to Ukraine — by attackers using internet shutdowns to shield their actions from accountability. We cannot allow them to succeed. This report must therefore stand as an urgent call to action for all stakeholders. 

We have included a set of recommendations for governments, companies, and international actors to address the use of internet shutdowns during crises and conflicts, reject the dangerous normalization of these disruptions, and uphold human rights. 

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Triggers for internet shutdowns in 2023

Protests, school exams, and elections all remained notable triggers, with 63 protest-related shutdowns nearly reaching the previous high of 65 cases from 2019. We are monitoring these cases closely in 2024, as protest activities continue to rebuild after the COVID-19 outbreak and emerge on new fronts, and elections are underway for nearly half the world’s population. 

As we note above, conflicts were the leading driver globally for internet shutdowns in 2023
More militaries are using shutdowns as part of deliberate strategy to cut populations off from the world, either as a precursor to atrocities and violence against civilians or as part of a continuous, systematic dismantling of civilian infrastructure. The weaponization of internet shutdowns during active conflict has resulted in compounding humanitarian crises. In conflict zones and beyond, 2023 is the most violent year of shutdowns on record, with 173 shutdowns corresponding to acts of violence — a 26% increase from 2022.

Geographic scope is broadening

There were four new offenders in 2023: Kenya, Mozambique, Nepal, and Suriname. That is double the number of new perpetrators in 2022, a troubling sign that the practice is spreading geographically. We are also seeing significant global shifts away from highly localized shutdowns toward disruptions impacting wider geographies, including the highest-ever number of multi-regional or nationwide blocks (80), leaving millions in the dark. Israel and Russia are also driving the growing number of internet shutdowns imposed from outside the impacted territory, wielded as a weapon of war or mechanism for disrupting the free flow of information, in Gaza and Ukraine, respectively.

Authorities must refrain from normalizing platform blocks

Authorities continued to impose high numbers of platform blocks, cutting off entire countries from essential communications platforms as well as targeting specific vulnerable communities, as we’ve seen with the growing list of countries targeting LGBTQ+ people by blocking platforms like Grindr. LGBTQ+ people already face a wide range of serious threats to their fundamental rights and physical safety, and censorship, shutdowns, and other digital threats are only exacerbating the harm and putting people at further risk.

Even democracies that often position themselves as champions of free expression waded into dangerous waters in 2023 as policymakers put forward misguided arguments for blocking or banning certain social media platforms. In 2024, we are seeing a continuation of this trend. This sends a dangerous message of tacit endorsement to governments around the world looking to justify blocking platforms that millions rely on.

Stakeholders are stepping up and fighting back

Despite these troubling developments, there has been overwhelming support and solidarity from the international community in our fight against internet shutdowns, and we saw stakeholders around the world stepping up with unprecedented action in 2023 to #KeepItOn.

As part of our collective advocacy with coalition members and partners through the #KeepItOn Election Watch, we saw three African countries with a history of shutdowns — the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone — make and uphold public commitments to keep people connected in 2023 elections. There was also good news on the legal front: for the third time, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice ruled against the use of shutdowns, after civil society groups challenged a shutdown in Guinea. 

In Iraq, where government-ordered shutdowns around exam periods have harmed communities every year since we first started recording cases in 2016, we saw the Ministry of Communications stepping up for the first time to publicly challenge the practice. Responding to civil society pressure, EU officials confirmed that the Digital Services Act would not be used as a vehicle for imposing arbitrary internet shutdowns and censorship.

We also saw the Freedom Online Coalition — a partnership of 39 governments — publish a landmark joint statement urging governments to stop imposing internet shutdowns during electoral periods in accordance with their international human rights obligations, looking with particular concern to the unprecedented number of elections slated for 2024. More recently, in March 2024, the African Commission on Peoples’ and Human Rights also issued a statement condemning election shutdowns in Africa — an important step forward for the region and the #KeepItOn movement as a whole.

Join us in the fight to #KeepItOn

As democratic institutions falter, civic space shrinks, and wars escalate around the world, shutdowns have become a convenient tool for oppression and marginalization. The drastically high total number of shutdowns globally, entrenched use by the worst offenders year after year, and impunity for authorities has demonstrated how challenging the fight remains to #KeepItOn. Yet civil society and impacted communities have shown time after time their strength and ingenuity in working to mitigate and prevent internet shutdowns. With so much on the line, we must join together to bring internet shutdowns to an end.

We urge all stakeholders to take immediate action.

Parties to conflict, states, private actors, and international actors:

  • Address the use of shutdowns in conflict-affected areas by urgently implementing the recommendations detailed in the report. They include advice for aligning practices with international humanitarian, criminal, and human rights law. We also offer concrete recommendations to end the ongoing, pernicious use of shutdowns across all contexts, which harm millions of people year after year.

Civil society