#KeepItOn during elections

Who is shutting down the internet in 2023? A mid-year update

Internet shutdowns are unacceptable and a blatant violation of human rights, whether authorities implement them routinely during ongoing conflict, protests, exams, or elections, or as a knee-jerk reaction to a sudden crisis. Yet since the beginning of the year, governments around the world have not only persisted in the dangerous trends Access Now and the global #KeepItOn coalition documented in 2022, they are discovering new reasons to disrupt internet access during key national moments. These shutdowns hurt everyone, and they have to stop.

As of May 19, we have preliminarily identified at least 80 shutdowns across 21 countries so far in 2023, with 18 of these shutdowns ongoing since 2022. Nine of these shutdowns happened in May, including a blanket shutdown in Manipur, India, nationwide blocking of 14 messaging applications all across India, and social media blocking to silence protesters in Guinea. As the #KeepItOn community continues to identify and verify internet shutdowns throughout the rest of the year, the total numbers are likely to increase, a painful indicator of the staggering growth rate of internet shutdowns globally.

Read on for the full update, including key examples, concerning trends, devastating impacts, and important wins in the fight to #KeepItOn. We are excited to connect with you at RightsCon Costa Rica, where we hope to make more progress together.

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Worst offenders double down

As Russia continues its unlawful full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the military continues to target the internet and basic civilian infrastructure as part of its attack strategy. Air strikes in the regions of Odessa, Kharkiv and Zhytomyr, Luhansk, and many others purposefully cut off internet access, creating uncertainty and deepening suffering for the people of Ukraine. Although there are hopes for a counteroffensive to bring an end to the war, and Ukrainians have demonstrated resilience in restoring infrastructure and providing connectivity, there is no sign that the Russian military will slow the shutdowns it has imposed since February 2022.

In Tigray, Ethiopia, despite a peace agreement, the government has failed to end the over two-and-a-half year long internet shutdown by fully restoring internet access in a region already devastated by civil war. On top of this, the government has imposed new shutdowns in other parts of the country, from nationwide social media blocks that have lingered for months, to a mobile shutdown in early April in the Amhara region. There have also been unverified reports of sporadic internet shutdowns in the Oromia region. According to our documentation in the STOP database, the government of Ethiopia has imposed no fewer than 24 shutdowns since 2016, the highest total count in all of Africa. The arbitrary use of shutdowns in response to important national crises is extremely harmful and unacceptable. We call on the authorities to restore access to communications platforms across Ethiopia, and prioritize restoring full connectivity to Tigray and all other affected regions.

In Iran, one of the worst offenders of shutdowns in 2022, the year began with a shutdown for school exams on January 19, a demonstrably ineffective method of preventing cheating or addressing corruption and exam leaks. Additionally, Iranian authorities have continued their relentless crackdown on Iran’s protest movement, which has persisted in cities and regions across the country. This crackdown includes wielding internet shutdowns to silence voices and cover atrocities. In Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province, particularly the capital city of Zahedan, weekly protests during Friday prayers have been met with deliberate internet shutdowns for months. These recurring blackouts follow the pattern from last year, when authorities imposed weekly curfew-style shutdowns to crush protests.

Lastly, as of May 19, 13 states in India have imposed a total of 33 shutdowns already in 2023, according to our partners at Software Freedom Law Center, India. Although many of these shutdowns continue to be implemented at a local or even neighborhood level in response to religious anniversaries, protests, and communal violence, authorities have also imposed sweeping state-wide shutdowns and extended shutdowns across the entire country. During exams in Rajasthan, a state-wide police search in Punjab, and widespread protests in Manipur, the internet was completely suspended for days to weeks, cutting off tens of millions of people.

Internet shutdowns undermine disaster response

Across Myanmar, millions of people have been disconnected from the internet for over a year as a result of brutal crackdowns by the military junta. According to our partners, all 330 townships across Myanmar were subjected to internet shutdowns at least once in 2022. The military continues to impose shutdowns in regions where they face armed resistance, with new disconnections reported in multiple townships in Chin State in January, on top of existing long-term shutdowns across the country. To make matters worse, Cyclone Mocha in May followed a path into western Myanmar, and the near-total lack of connectivity exacerbated the effects of the deadly storm. People already deliberately disconnected could not receive proper warning of storms, evacuation efforts, and even post-disaster relief assistance.

Cyclone-Mocha-and-internet-shutdown, made by Guillaume de Langre

In Turkey in February, Turkish authorities throttled access to Twitter in the wake of the deadly M7.8 earthquake, evidently to silence growing criticism of the country’s response to the crisis. This action severely hampered humanitarian coordination efforts to rescue people and deliver aid. When the shutdown sparked widespread condemnation, authorities restored full-speed access to the platform, which had been non-functional for a full 12 hours on February 8. The effects of the throttling were grave, given that the earthquake was only two days prior, thousands were still trapped in the rubble, and ongoing aftershocks were continuing to cause the collapse of additional buildings. This was not the first time Turkish authorities had blocked access to social media platforms in the wake of a disaster. Authorities also imposed a shutdown after the tragic and deadly explosion in Istanbul last year. This pattern of cutting people off when they are in danger is a terrifying trend, and a disinformation bill passed in October 2022 only broadened the national government’s censorship powers, allowing authorities to consistently restrict the flow of information just when people need it most.

Police forces around the world have used targeted network disruptions for years, but in 2023, police and government leaders imposed broad and sustained shutdowns during the capture and imprisonment of high-profile suspects. In Mauritania in March, authorities cut off mobile internet for six days after four prisoners escaped from prison, a disproportionate, ineffective, and draconian response. Later in March, authorities in Punjab, India, imposed a lengthy, multi-phase shutdown across the state during a police search for an alleged separatist leader.

After the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan sparked protests in Pakistan, authorities implemented punitive shutdowns across the country — yet another disproportionate response that had devastating impacts. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) ordered the indefinite suspension of internet services, resulting in a three-day blanket shutdown across four mobile providers starting May 10. In addition, authorities blocked Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube for a full week. These disruptions deepen the trend seen around the world of layered social media blocks occurring alongside regionally targeted mobile shutdowns.

Democracies seek new censorship powers

In early 2023, we continue to see the troubling descent of countries with stronger democratic institutions toward censorship and shutdowns. In Brazil, a court ordered Telegram blocked across multiple ISPs from April 26 to April 30, after the company allegedly failed to provide police with information about participants in hate group chat rooms. Brazilian courts have a long history of using contempt orders to shut down social media apps. And in the U.S., the state of Montana ordered an outright ban of TikTok, following escalating geopolitical tensions between China and the U.S. on data protection, surveillance, and national security. A ban like this is short-sighted and fails to address the larger problem: the need for strong, comprehensive data protection laws and surveillance reform to protect everyone’s privacy and security. Platform blocks undermine the credibility of governments that otherwise condemn internet shutdowns.

There is pushback on these shutdowns. Through our participation in the second Summit for Democracy as part of the Technology for Democracy Cohort, Access Now amplified civil society calls to #KeepItOn. Governments must be held accountable to their commitments on democratic norms: of the 111 countries invited to the first Summit for Democracy in December 2021, six have since shut down the internet (Armenia, Brazil, India, Iraq, Nigeria, and Pakistan), and there were reports indicating a potential shutdown in Suriname in February. Mauritania, one of eight invitees included in the second summit, imposed a shutdown in March 2023. Armenian authorities blocked TikTok in September 2022, and they may also be behind the blocking of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp on May 18, 2023 in the Nagorno-Karabakh region — both shutdowns taking place in the context of conflict with Azerbaijan. Alarmingly, the Armenian government is also trying to give itself legal authority to implement shutdowns during times of military conflict. Regardless of the peace talks in the works and whether a ceasefire would stop the shutdowns, Armenia must take stronger action to safeguard people’s internet access and freedom of expression.

How the #KeepItOn coalition is fighting back

Despite the continuation of shutdowns in a variety of contexts, we are already seeing notable wins in 2023. 

For example, through our 2023 Election Watch, we identified 18 countries that were at increased risk of internet shutdowns during elections. To date, seven countries (Benin, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Cuba, Turkmenistan, Thailand, and Turkey) kept internet access on during elections, a promising sign that the authorities are avoiding election-related shutdowns, even if, in some cases, they impose shutdowns or platform blocks in other contexts. 

These countries are on our watchlist due to past behavior: Thailand has never imposed internet shutdowns, but in recent years has escalated online censorship to suppress dissent. Authorities in Kazakhstan, meanwhile, had imposed a devastating, multi-phase country-wide shutdown in January 2022, but recently stated that “the state should not suspend the operation of all communication networks during an emergency.” In Nigeria, authorities previously blocked Twitter — an act the ECOWAS Court later declared unlawful. Ahead of the general elections in February 2023, the global #KeepItOn coalition issued an open letter appealing to the Nigerian government and internet service providers to #KeepItOn during the elections. Authorities in Nigeria responded to public pressure by assuring the people of Nigeria that access to the internet would not be disrupted — a promise they kept.

Turkey, meanwhile, did not shut down the internet during its recent election period — but it did increase online censorship, including demanding that Twitter censor critical voices, just one day before the elections. We strongly condemn Twitter’s decision to bow to these demands and “restrict access to some content” the Turkish government flagged. With reports suggesting that since Elon Musk’s takeover, Twitter is complying with more requests from authoritarian governments, we fear there is more censorship to come. We are also concerned to see reports that Turkish authorities may have restricted access to ekşi sözlük, a social network authorities had previously blocked, one day before elections. 

Elections remain a spur for internet shutdowns, as a recent shutdown during post-election violence in Kiphire, Nagaland, India reminds us. We continue to press the remaining 11 countries in our #KeepItOn Election Watch to maintain free and secure access to the internet throughout their elections, and we encourage you to join us.

Exams are also a spur for shutdowns — but resistance is growing. Following sustained advocacy and pressure from Access Now and our civil society partners, including the launch of the #NoExamShutdown campaign, the Ministry of Communications in Iraq announced in mid-May that the agency would not shut down the internet during final exams in June. However, in a disappointing turn of events, the Iraqi Minister of Education pushed back, calling exam shutdowns a “precautionary measure widely used worldwide.” The Council of Ministers then authorized daily shutdowns from 4:00 to 8:00 am local time (four hours per day) on exam days. We and our partners will continue to call on authorities to abandon this damaging practice.

Join us

Despite the ongoing pervasiveness of internet shutdowns, our community has shown it can and will fight back. We must continue to work together to reverse the alarming trends of recent years. Our coalition of over 300 organizations from 105 countries includes research centers, press freedom organizations, human rights groups, impact litigators, public interest technologists, network measurement groups, and many other groups. We can all make a difference. Learn more about the #KeepItOn campaign, and join the fight.