internet shutdowns elections

#KeepItOn: 2021 Elections Watch

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When the internet is shut down during an election, people in these countries are plunged into darkness. People outside these countries cannot scrutinize what they can’t see. That’s an attack on democracy, and it hurts human rights. Not even halfway through 2021, we have already seen authorities impose internet shutdowns during presidential elections in Uganda, an ongoing military coup in Myanmar, and as a measure to quell nationwide protests in India. These actions are drawing more attention to internet shutdowns and the global #KeepItOn campaign to stop them — and stirring outrage from Rihanna and Greta Thunberg. Our #KeepItOn 2021 Elections Watch is aimed at helping people work together to prevent, circumvent, and document any further deliberate election shutdowns this year. 

The internet and social media platforms play a critical role in enhancing participatory governance in democratic society. They provide space for communicating, public debate, seeking information on election processes and candidates, reporting and documenting events and outcomes, and holding governments accountable for their actions — including their promises to the people. Journalists, human rights defenders, election observers, civil society actors, and other relevant stakeholders count on the internet to monitor and report on elections, and this facilitates transparency and openness in the process.

Internet shutdowns do the opposite, tainting elections and destroying their integrity. They draw global attention to the problems in a democracy.

Why do governments shut down the internet?

Governments attempt to justify shutdowns by citing “national security” and “public safety concerns,” “preventing the spread of misinformation and disinformation,” or sometimes as “precautionary measures.” None of these purposely vague excuses holds up to any form of scrutiny.

The reality is that governments usually implement shutdowns to quell peaceful protests, silence dissent during elections, or prevent information about conflicts from making international headlines. Frighteningly, internet shutdowns also provide cover for state-sponsored violence that violates international human rights law.

Last year, the governments of Togo, Burundi, Guinea, Belarus, and Tanzania shut down the internet or blocked social media platforms during elections. In 2021, many more countries with a history of internet shutdowns are headed to the polls, and people fighting for their democracies need the world’s solidarity and support.

What elections are we watching in 2021?

December 24 — General election

Muammar Gaddafi’s government reportedly blocked access to Facebook in Tripoli, and sporadically shut down the internet in other parts of the country, as a response to anti-government protests in 2011. To date, there have been no reports of shutdowns under the interim government for Libya, but the precedent is set, and the world is watching.

Spread the message for Libya
You can also share this message with Libya’s Department of Communication and Information on Facebook:

Ahead of Libya’s elections on December 24, authorities should commit to #KeepItOn and take all necessary steps to ensure there are no disruptions to the internet or communications platforms during this critical moment for democracy.

Spread the message for Libya

The Republic of The Gambia
December 4 — Presidential election

Authorities in The Gambia joined the shame list when President Yahya Jammeh plunged the nation into darkness on the eve of the 2016 presidential elections, just as journalists had speculated he would. The Adama Barrow government has not deliberately disrupted access to the internet, but there are frequent network disruptions attributed to undersea cable cuts that continue to affect access. Throughout the 2021 presidential elections, however, we received no reports of internet shutdowns. 

November 7 — General election
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Even before Nicaragua’s 2018 uprisings, President Daniel Ortega was suspected of influencing and censoring news outlets. The #KeepItOn community received reports of systematic online attacks during this period, alongside unverified reports of internet disruptions in communities across the country, including cuts to electricity and other basic services. The Nicaraguan government has also recently adopted a repressive cybercrime law paving the way for more restrictions to online speech, and passed legislation essentially banning opposition candidates from the 2021 election.

The results of the controversial 2021 election saw President Ortega retain power with 75% of the vote. Abstencionism was estimated at 81%. While no internet shutdowns were reported, the months leading up to the vote were characterized by the detention of seven candidates, the blocking of three parties from running, and the arrest of journalists.

September 19 — Legislative election
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As many had predicted, the government of Russia — with the complicity of Big Tech — censored the population this election. The interference began on on September 2, with authorities
ordering Apple and Google to remove Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting app from their stores and platforms, and lead to the temporary blocking of Google and Cloudflare domain name system (DNS) services, ordering the blocking of VPNs, Google blocking Google Docs and YouTube videos used by the Smart Voting project, and Telegram disabling its Smart Voting chat bot.

Shutdowns have plagued Russia in recent years, with authorities covertly blocking Moscow’s mobile internet in July and August of 2019 during the Moscow City Duma elections protests. Authorities in Ingushetia shut down mobile internet on multiple occasions in June, October, and November of 2018, and in March 2019, as people organized and headed out to the streets to protest the new border deal with Chechnya. Network disruptions were also reported in the Ural region during the November 2019 testing of the Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) equipment as a part of the Russian sovereign internet project.

As Russian authorities are notorious for cracking down on protesters and critical voices, the risk of an election internet blackout this year was significant. Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition called on telcos and Big Tech to stand up for human rights, and resist government orders to shutdown and censor internet platforms, applications, and services.

Spread the message for Russia

October 10 — General election
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Update: In January 2021, Iraq’s cabinet voted unanimously to postpone the general election from June 6 to October 10 after the Iraq’s Independent High Election Commission (IHEC) requested more time to organize the polls to allow free and fair elections.

In 2019 mass anti-government demonstrations took over the streets of Iraq, with thousands of people from all walks of life protesting against unemployment, failing public services including long power outages, and government corruption. The government swiftly hit the kill  switch. On this occasion, there was no apparent deliberate disruption.

Spread the message for Iraq
You can also share this message with Iraq’s Ministry of Communications on Facebook:

In 2019, as protesters took to the streets of Iraq to call for government reform, the government responded by shutting down the internet. The country’s general election is coming up on October 10, and authorities must #KeepItOn to ensure democracy!

Spread the message for Iraq

August 12 — General election
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Following the 2016 general elections, local media outlets reported at least two days of internet shutdowns and slowdowns in parts of Zambia, with mobile services being most affected. Notably, the government hit opposition stronghold areas. In 2020, Freedom House reported another two-day shutdown. Government officials said the shutdown was due to heavy rains, but the timing is suspicious as the nation was experiencing “the worst political tension in recent years,” and officials at the United Party for National Development (UPND) alleged the government was responsible for the restriction.

Despite the government’s commitment to #KeepItOn during the 2021 election cycle, Zambians have been experiencing blocking on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Twitter since polls opened on Thursday, August 12. The #KeepItOn coalition urges Zambian authorities to immediately restore access to the full internet, including social media and messaging platforms, to avoid further violating human rights in this crucial time as the country awaits the results of the election.

If you have been impacted by the social media blocking in Zambia, you can share your story with us to help the #KeepItOn coalition capture evidence and fight back against internet shutdowns.

Share a personal shutdown story

June 21 — General election
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Authorities did not shut down the internet across Ethiopia this election. Nor did they reinstate connectivity in Tigray.

In line with a five-year trend of devastating shutdowns and targeted website blockings, the government once again is denying millions of people in Ethiopia full access to the internet. In 2020, the government cut access to the internet after protesters demanded justice for the killing of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, an Oromo activist and musician. In 2021, people in Tigray continue to face daily connectivity challenges and are not only digitally cut off from their communities, but also unable to work or study to full capacity. Media and human rights groups denied access to the internet struggle to document alleged human rights abuses by authorities.

If you have been impacted by the shutdown in Tigray, please share your story.

Share a personal shutdown story
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June 18 — General election
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Over the last decade, strategic government-mandated internet shutdowns in Iran have censored critical voices. In 2009, authorities slowed internet access and warned journalists working for international media to confine themselves to their offices for several days around elections.

In November 2019, the government once again shut down the internet, in an evident attempt to mask its acts of violence. Amnesty International reports that security forces killed at least 304 people — including children — during five days of protests that swept across the country. 

In a country where authorities frequently interfere with internet access, and where social media platforms — such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and most recently Signal — are only accessible via VPNs, the #KeepItOn coalition is monitoring closely for internet shutdowns during the country’s election period. We have already received initial reports of localized mobile data blocking in the city of Yasuj, and are continuing to investigate the situation.

If you have experienced any disruptions to your internet connection or have been unable to access certain platforms, let us know!

Share a personal shutdown story

April 11 — Presidential election
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Chad authorities have a long record of blocking social media during important national events. As a response to anti-government protests the government choked access to social platforms — including WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube — for a startling 472 days between 2018 and 2019. More recently, in July 2020, Chad blocked social media, slowed down the internet, and censored citizen journalists. Even though authorities restored full internet speed a few weeks later, they continued to block WhatsApp — one of the most popular social media platforms in Chad — and it remains blocked to this day.

We have not documented any additional blocking during Chad’s presidential election that took place on April 11, 2021. However, many people appear to have heeded opposition leaders’ calls to boycott the election amid reports of crackdown by security forces.

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April 11 — Presidential election
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In 2019, the government of Benin joined the shame list of governments weaponizing internet shutdowns during elections. Authorities began by blocking social media platforms including WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and Instagram then blocked Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), then cut access to the internet entirely — all within a day.

Key opposition leaders in the country called for a boycott of Benin’s presidential election on April, 11, 2021, following security forces’ violent crackdown on protesters. The #KeepItOn coalition called on Benin’s government and internet service providers to keep people online, and we are pleased to report — despite the concerning circumstances — we did not observe any internet disruptions in the lead-up to or immediately following this year’s election.

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The Republic of the Congo
March 21 — Presidential election
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Just hours before polls were set to open on March 21, the Republic of Congo implemented a complete internet shutdown impacting all broadband and mobile internet connections, as well as SMS messaging, lasting until March 23. This is an unfortunate repeat of past transgressions, as the country has a long history of internet shutdowns. In 2015 in Congo-Brazzaville, authorities cut access to the internet ahead of protests to oppose extending the term of President Sassou Nguesso, who has remained in office since 1997. In 2016, authorities shutdown the internet during the presidential election to, purportedly, stop the “illegal” publication of results.

If you have been impacted by the internet shutdown in the Republic of Congo, we want to hear from you. Sharing your story helps the #KeepItOn coalition to capture evidence of shutdowns and their negative effects and to strengthen our advocacy.

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February 21 — Presidential runoff election
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Major internet service providers (ISPs) disrupted mobile internet in Niger on February 24, 2021, three days after the election. As protests broke out in Niamey and other parts of the country following the outcome announcement of the presidential run-off, internet traffic plummeted. Mobile internet access was restored after 10 days, on March 5, with no explanation from authorities.

If you have been impacted by the internet shutdown in Niger, we want to hear from you. Sharing your story helps the #KeepItOn coalition to capture evidence of shutdowns and their negative effects and to strengthen our advocacy.

Share a personal shutdown story
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January 14 — Presidential election
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Following the dangerous example it set in the 2016 elections, and amidst a growing crackdown on media, human rights defenders, and opposition politicians, the Republic of Uganda shut off the internet on the eve of the 2021 general elections. Authorities lifted the internet censorship and social media blackout on February 10, but the impact the disruptions had on the lives and rights of people in Uganda lives on.

If you have been impacted by the internet shutdown in Uganda, we want to hear from you. Sharing your story helps the #KeepItOn coalition to capture evidence of shutdowns and their negative effects and to strengthen our advocacy.

Share a personal shutdown story

What you can do about election shutdowns

Join the #KeepItOn movement. Internet shutdowns are a global issue, and you can be part of the campaign to stop them by applying public pressure. The #KeepItOn coalition encourages everyone who wants to fight shutdowns — activists, civil society actors, and everyday citizens — to join us in calling out governments, telecommunication companies, and every other actor who plays a role in these blatant acts of censorship. You can learn more about the #KeepItOn coalition and how to push back against shutdowns through the #KeepItOn FAQ.

To fight shutdowns in your country, connect with us. If you are anticipating an election and you think your government will impose an internet shutdown to impede the process or silence dissenting voices, you can connect to fellow advocates for a free and open internet using the #KeepItOn hashtag. If you are an election observer, activist, or reporter covering elections, please read and share this handbook to better understand the impact of internet shutdowns on elections and prepare yourself for any potential network disruptions. You can also use this #KeepItOn toolkit for more information and downloadable advocacy materials. Remember, if you are a human rights advocate, or part of a group that fights for human rights, and you are concerned about your safety and need help with increasing your digital security, our Digital Security Helpline is a resource for you. 

Help document the harm of shutdowns. Have you lived through an internet shutdown? If you share your story with us as part of our Shutdown Stories project, your voice can become part of a growing body of evidence to establish the harm caused by shutdowns and hold those responsible to account.

This blog was first published on February 18, and is being periodically updated.