Flicking the kill switch: governments embrace internet shutdowns as a form of control

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On 1 February 2021, reporter Ko Zin Lin Htet received a panicked phone call from a source in the Burmese capital, Yangon. The caller said the military had seized power and was arresting opposition politicians, then hung up. Ko Zin Lin Htet remembered what he did next: “I checked my phone and my internet connection. There was nothing there.”

He got on his motorbike and drove to the parliament, where he saw military personnel, not police, guarding the buildings. At that moment, Ko Zin Lin Htet realised there had been a coup – and that by cutting internet access, the new junta had thrown the country back into the pre-internet era.

For months the military had been questioning the results of the November 2020 election, won in a landslide by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. The coup took place on the day the new parliament was due to be sworn in.

In the early hours of the morning, the junta had sent soldiers to the country’s internet providers to force engineers to shut down connections to the outside world. It was the first stage of a digital coup designed to exert control over communications by slowing and strategically shutting off the internet.

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When internet shutdowns spill over borders
When Myanmar’s military ordered telecom companies to shut down access to Twitter in February 2021, one Twitter user in Mumbai who was posting critically about the Indian government realised he had lost access to the social media platform. He sent a message on Signal to a friend: “Am I imagining this? I may be being paranoid, but why am I having access difficulties with Twitter?” He was not paranoid. Myanmar’s Twitter block had accidentally cut Twitter access to at least half a billion internet users. The same dynamic was repeated in March 2022, when Russia inadvertently cut access to Twitter across Europe with a block designed for its own people.

The mechanics of the internet mean that blocks on access imposed by one country may leach over the borders on to neighbouring populations, or even be felt half a world away by users in different continents.

Internet shutdowns in 2021: the return of digital authoritarianism

In 2021, Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition documented 182 internet shutdowns across 34 countries. This shows a dramatic resurgence of this oppressive form of control compared to 159 shutdowns recorded in 29 countries in 2020. For a full exploration of trends and triggers over the last year, read our new report, The return of digital authoritarianism: internet shutdowns in 2021.

Censorship, information regulation, and isolation from the outside world are the basic components of a government’s descent into digital authoritarianism — an internet shutdown is a proven all-in-one tool that achieves ultimate control in a single, swift action.

Internet shutdowns are always dangerous, and 2021 highlighted just how vicious they can be. The world witnessed governments implement blackouts throughout protests, civil unrest, wars, and crises, while setting a precarious precedent for 2022. Last year began with authorities in Ethiopia, Myanmar, and India shutting down the internet to quell dissent and assert control over populations. Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip brought down towers supporting essential communications infrastructure as well as newsrooms for Al Jazeera and the Associated Press, while escalating censorship in Russia signaled what was yet to come.

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