WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
- Digital rights researchers reported a record number of internet shutdowns in 2022.
- 35 countries had shutdowns at least 187 times, with nearly half of those in India.
- Shutdowns were triggered by large protests, conflict situations, elections, and examinations.
Governments worldwide are increasingly using internet shutdowns as a tactic of “digital authoritarianism,” according to a new report by digital rights researchers Access Now. The report found that in 2022, authorities in 35 countries instituted internet shutdowns at least 187 times, the highest number since Access Now began monitoring disruptions in 2016.
Nearly half of these shutdowns occurred in India, which has been the most prolific at suspending the internet for the fifth year in a row. Shutdowns took various forms, including complete blackouts, suspensions of specific phone networks or social media apps, and the slowing down of internet speeds.
Shutdowns have been triggered by large protests, conflict situations, elections, and even examinations. While governments have argued that shutdowns can help control social unrest, they make it substantially more difficult for people to communicate and receive or send news, and they incur significant economic costs. In response to the growing use of internet shutdowns, the United Nations called for governments to avoid using such a blunt tactic.
India’s most recent shutdowns were initiated by local authorities, though the central government has refused to respond to criticism and calls for reform of its shutdown practices and legal structure by Indian parliamentary bodies and previous court judgments.
While internet controls only affect a very small fraction of India’s internet users, the continued position of India at the top of the index is alarming, according to Raman Jit Singh Chima, the Asia policy director at Access Now.
Shutdowns were not limited to India. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and mass civilian protests in Iran also led to internet shutdowns. In Ukraine, all 22 shutdown incidents recorded were a result of Russian actions, including cyber- and airstrikes targeting the country’s communications infrastructure.
Meanwhile, in Russia, Moscow also blocked access to services such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, in what the report said was part of a broader crackdown on dissent and an effort to control propaganda on the invasion of Ukraine. As Tehran violently clamps down on protests sparked by the death of a young woman in the custody of its “morality police,” its theocratic government is also imposing social media blocks.
Authorities imposed a record 18 shutdowns in 2022, which included blocking Instagram and the WhatsApp messaging service, according to the report.
Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman at the U.N. Human Rights Office in Geneva, said: “This can be a big warning sign of how the human rights situation is deteriorating, and shutdowns are often associated with increased levels of insecurity and other restrictions.”
Access Now concluded that autocrats in Ethiopia and Myanmar have used internet suspensions to complement military strategy by cutting off access for select populations for months or years. Access Now said the internet suspension in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, first imposed in 2020, is the world’s longest active shutdown.
Telephone networks in the area were reported to be back online following a truce agreed to in November, but Access Now noted in February that internet access was still slow or degraded. In Myanmar, the military junta that retook power after a 2021 coup instituted sweeping internet suspensions across the country, with all of its 330 townships subject to at least one shutdown last year, according to the report.