It’s not just Nigeria’s government that blocks social media platforms like Twitter or cuts internet access entirely to control the flow of information online. To show which governments are shutting down the internet in 2021, the global #KeepItOn coalition — representing 258 organizations from 106 countries — has documented at least 50 internet shutdowns in 21 countries between January and May.
The year began with authoritarian regimes using a cascade of shutdowns to crush protests and silence dissent. These efforts to censor and manipulate people during elections, and to grab power as part of a coup attempt, have put people’s lives at risk during the global pandemic. Worse, despite public outcry, governments have not stopped ordering them. The shutdowns we document here are only the ones we have confirmed; our team and the #KeepItOn coalition continue to work together to investigate a number of disruptions that are not yet included in these numbers.
In this post, we cover:
- Facts and figures on some of the most dangerous shutdowns so far in 2021;
- Emerging trends for these disruptions;
- Impact of shutdowns a year after the outbreak of COVID-19; and
- Information on key #KeepItOn coalition projects this year.
Click here to download the raw data from January to May in 2021. If you’re looking for basic information about how internet shutdowns undermine human rights, we encourage you to read the #KeepItOn FAQ and tune in to Killswitch, our podcast series that features technologists, legal experts, rights groups, and activists across the globe. We hope you join us in the fight to end internet shutdowns permanently.
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1. Long shutdowns extending from 2020 into 2021
Several governments are extending the shutdowns they imposed in 2020. The people of Jammu and Kashmir had already suffered the longest internet shutdown on record in a democracy, from August 4 of 2019 to February 5 of 2021 — and they are still suffering repeated, intermittent shutdowns to this day.
The same is true in Ethiopia, which disconnected 100+ million people from the internet for two weeks in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since November 2020, authorities have cut off internet access in the Tigray region. This shutdown once included blocking phone calls and texts, which are now working intermittently — while the internet remains cut off.
The Myanmar military restored connectivity in eight townships in Rakhine and Chin states on February 3, 2021, but before then, nine townships had been under some form of shutdown since June 2019. Today, the junta is “whitelisting” — giving only some institutions, companies, and individuals the freedom to connect via fiber optic and fixed cable internet, while blocking mobile services and essentially blacklisting everyone else.
2. Platform shutdowns to mar elections and control information
Several of the shutdowns so far in 2021 have occurred around elections. Authorities in Uganda imposed an internet shutdown during its general elections and for four days afterward. In Niger, the government responded to protests after the February 21 election by shutting down internet access, cutting access on February 24 and restoring it 10 days later with no official explanation, either from the authorities or the ISPs that carried out the orders. In Congo, authorities imposed a complete internet blackout from March 20-23. They cut access only hours before the presidential election polling stations were set to open.
In addition, governments have been tightening information control through blocking platforms that don’t comply with their orders. In the Uganda election case, President Museveni blocked Facebook after the platform took down a network of government-linked accounts that were spreading misinformation. Similarly, in March, the Russian government attempted to throttle traffic from Twitter because the company declined to delete accounts the government wanted taken down.
3. Shutdowns during protests
Authorities in Iran, Cuba, Chad, Kazakhstan, Jordan, Myanmar, and many other countries disrupted or cut connectivity entirely during protests. As we have noted in previous reports, governments are using 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 protests, particularly in countries that have authoritarian regimes or weak democracies.
4. Shutdowns in active conflict zones
Following the trend we observed in 2020, warring parties have targeted internet infrastructure in active conflict zones. As a result, people living in these zones lost critical channels for getting life-saving information, sharing the devastating losses they were facing, or calling for international aid.
1. They lock people with disabilities out of the digital space, blocking participation in everything from online education platforms to digital banking.
“Uganda’s approximately 12.4% persons living with disabilities are already struggling with the prohibitively high prices of digital devices and assistive technology, and internet shutdowns are an insult to that already painful injury.” — Mohammed Kimbugwe, Disability Rights Advocate from Uganda
2. They block people from accessing key public health information and means to maintain everyday life.
As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues to shift the norms for everyday life, curfew-style network disruptions, internet throttling, and platform blocks interfere with electronic commerce, vaccine appointment booking apps, video conferencing, and VoIP calls that people depend on to get vital information, including updates from the government regarding COVID-19, getting essential life supplies, and finding pathways to return to work.
Internet shutdowns happen because governments want to control the flow of information online, regardless of the consequences for their own people, economies, and reputation around the world. However, there are signs of a growing consensus behind ending deliberate network disruptions globally. In May, participants at the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers’ Meeting issued a communiqué that condemns “actions by states to intentionally disrupt their own populations’ access to, or dissemination of, information, knowledge, and data online.” Notably, this communiqué adopted the definition of an internet shutdown Access Now and many members of the #KeepItOn coalition use, reflecting G7 familiarity with our campaign and goals. Companies such as Twitter are now actively supporting #KeepItOn. This is important progress.
Meanwhile, our coalition has been busy helping people anticipate, navigate, and document the internet shutdowns that undermine our democracies and damage human rights. At Access Now, we launched the 2021 Election Watch, which flags upcoming elections that are potentially ripe for shutdowns. Preventing election shutdowns is a global imperative, as they stop people from staying informed, auditing their own elections, and ensuring the integrity of democratic processes. People must have the power to document irregularities and share the evidence with the rest of the world.
In addition, we launched the #KeepItOn Internet Shutdowns and Elections Handbook in March. It is aimed at election observers, embassies, activists, and journalists, explaining why internet shutdowns are a barrier to democratic elections, and offering recommendations for navigating a shutdown, both through recognizing the early warning signs and preparing for and circumventing a shutdown, and by monitoring and documenting any shutdown that takes place.
As we look ahead to the next six months, we hope to make more progress, building pressure to prevent the network disruptions that are causing so much harm. We urge you to join the fight.