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Internet shutdowns during exams: when MENA governments fail the test

للقراءة بالعربية

National secondary and high school exams are a big deal in the Arab world. Every year, millions of students anxiously sit for exams that determine the first step of their future academic and professional careers: their university admission, and the subjects they’re eligible to study and pursue.

The stakes are high, not only for students, but also for governments administering these exams. Some have even gone to the extreme of designating their integrity as a “matter of national security.” As a result, a number of governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regularly implement nation-wide internet shutdowns during examinations to foil students’ attempts at cheating or sharing exam questions — unfortunately a real challenge in the region. Culprits of this draconian measure include Sudan, Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria.

Mobile internet off in Sudan

For the second year in a row, Sudan’s public prosecutor ordered Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to shut down mobile internet connection for three hours during this year’s national secondary school exams. The move came at the request of the Ministry of Education as a preemptive measure to prevent students from cheating or leaking exam questions as they did a few years ago.

On June 19, 2021, the first day of exams, evidence documented by Kentik, a cloud-based Network traffic intelligence organization, showed that internet traffic volume into Sudan dropped between 8:00 and 11:00 a.m.  local time.

According to Sudan’s Telecommunications and Post Regulatory Authority, the shutdown of mobile connection was implemented on exam days from June 19-30. Sudanese telcos notified internet users ahead of the disruption via SMS. Even with prior warning, the shutdown caused chaos and public outcry, as essential online services, including banking and email, came to a complete standstill.

This is not the first time Sudanese authorities have deliberately cut access to the internet. Sudan is a repeat offender, and has a history of internet shutdowns not only during exams, but also throughout mass protests in order to censor critical voices, and hamper civic action. Just last year, authorities disrupted internet services for three hours during national exams, which took place between September 13-24, 2020. 

Six years of regular shutdowns in Algeria 

Algeria pioneered internet shutdowns during national exams, hitting the kill switch every year since 2016. Algeria’s President, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, stated publicly on TV that he will “no longer tolerate” this practice, but the Algerian government nevertheless disrupted the internet again during this year’s exams. On June 20, Algerian authorities shut down the internet between 8:00 and 12:00 local time as 731,000 students were sitting their first national exam. These disruptions continued throughout the day, alternating between complete blackouts during exam sessions, and heavy throttling — the intentional slowing down of services — in between sessions, during lunch breaks, and overnight.

Millions of people in Algerian have suffered as a result, especially those whose work and livelihoods rely on social media and the internet. In 2019 alone, Algeria lost around 199 million USD as a result of internet shutdowns, and Algerian experts estimate economic losses at 500 million Algerian Dinars for every hour of internet shutdown in the country.

But shutdowns aren’t the only excessive measures authorities are dishing out in an attempt to eliminate cheating. This year, the Algerian Ministry of Justice charged 77 students for “publishing topics and answers of the baccalaureate exams using remote communication tools.” Twenty nine of them are currently detained, while 33 have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from 6-18 months, and fines of up to 100,000 Algerian dinars. These prosecutions come on the heels of government amendments to the Penal Code in 2020 which criminalize acts of cheating during examinations, punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine. The punishment is harsher — up to 15 years in prison — if cheating or publishing exam questions resulted in the full or partial cancellation of exams.

The Syrian regime’s total control 

The Syrian regime enjoys complete control over the internet and the telecommunications infrastructure, which has conveniently allowed them to surveil and censor their population, and to obstruct connectivity whenever they see fit — during national protests, military operations, and, of course, school exams. Like Algeria, Syria’s tradition of shutting down the internet during national exams has been as regular as clockwork since 2016. Through our Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP), we have documented at least 12 shutdowns during this period.

This year, the Syrian Minister of Education, Darem Tabbaa, has already announced that authorities will deliberately cut access to the internet during the 2021 high school exams, but made the caveat that this could be the last year if a new method to prevent cheating using encryption and surveillance cameras proves successful. People in Syria will no doubt be watching the Ministry of Education to see if this new technology truly puts an end to internet shutdowns.

Already in 2021, the Syrian government cut the entire nation off  the internet between May 31 and June 22 for at least four and a half hours each day as students took their high school exams. 

Accessing the internet in Syria has become increasingly difficult due to the ongoing military conflict. In 2020, one of the two major telcos in Syria, MTN Syria, announced plans to exit the Syrian market citing financial and operational difficulties. In the same year, the Syrian Ministry of Communications and Technology commenced a “internet rationing” plan allocating thresholds for the use of ADSL connection.

Blocking apps in and around schools in Jordan 

Jordan also blocked “all communication apps” in schools where the high school exams, known as “Tawjihi,” started on June 24, and the blocking is expected to last through July 15. A statement by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority confirms that the blocking is “a precautionary step to prevent cheating or leaking exam questions,” and notes the areas near these schools it may affect.

Jordan shut down the internet at least three times in 2020, and has a history of throttling the internet — particularly live-streaming services — not only during national exams but also in times of political unrest. Earlier this year, Jordan blocked internet access and digital communication platforms across the nation during anti-government protests.

Shutdowns do not prevent cheating

Two wrongs don’t make a right. Cheating may be a genuine issue that needs addressing across the MENA region, but shutting down the internet in an attempt to combat it is neither necessary nor proportionate. Importantly, there is no evidence to suggest that these measures are effective or successful in any way. Exam leaks continue to happen in spite of shutdowns. Their negative repercussions are far reaching, and indiscriminately affect entire populations. The internet is central to many people’s daily activities from education, business, and work, to networking, entertainment, and much more. Imposing nationwide internet shutdowns is no solution to the problem it is supposed to solve.

It is worth reiterating that all of the above governments have hit the kill switch not only during national exams, but also during mass protests and political unrest. So we ask, is this about cheating, or is this about control?

A call to end this draconian practice

Blanket internet shutdowns, along with blocking or throttling certain communications apps and platforms, contravene international human rights law and standards including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which all of the above states have either signed or ratified.

In 2020, the Human Rights Council strongly condemned in its Resolution 44/12 the use of internet shutdowns to “intentionally and arbitrarily prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online” and called on states to refrain from such practices.

We call on Arab states to stop blocking access to the internet, including social media platforms and messaging apps, before, during, and after national exams. Instead, we encourage governments to look into less intrusive, specific, legitimate, necessary, proportionate, and proven measures to prevent exam leaks and cheating, while ensuring high-quality, secure, and unrestricted internet access for all people. 

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