Pressing the kill switch: Governments embrace internet shutdown as a form of control | Internet

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

He got on his motorcycle and drove to Parliament, where he saw members of the military, not the police, guarding the buildings. At that moment, Ku Zhen Lin Hetit realized that there was a coup – and that By cutting off internet accessThe new military junta has brought the country back to the pre-internet era.

For several months, the military has been questioning the results of the November 2020 elections, which were won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. The coup occurred On the day the new parliament was due to be sworn in.

In the early hours of the morning, the junta sent soldiers to the country’s Internet service providers to force engineers to cut off contact with the outside world. This was the first stage of a digital revolution designed to exert control over communications by strategically slowing and shutting down the Internet.

Nathan Monge was another Burmese journalist who remembers confusion and disbelief on the day of the military coup. “The internet was off.” He searched for his latest texts – “Last messages from my friends said, ‘Shit has happened.’ I have no idea what happened.”

The entire country has sunk into an information black hole.

dark cloak

From Ukraine To Myanmar, government-run internet outages are increasing worldwide. In 2021, there were 182 shutdowns in 34 countries, according to Access Now, a nongovernmental organization that tracks contact worldwide. Countries across Africa and Asia have switched to lockdowns to try to control behaviour, while India, largely in the conflict-ridden region of Jammu and Kashmir, has plunged into digital darkness more times than in any other year.

The increasing use of the kill switch underscores the growing global trend towards digital authoritarianism, with governments using internet access as a weapon against their own people. Internet Closures have also become a modern canary in the coal mine.

“It is well known in many countries that an internet outage is a sign or signal that something bad is about to happen,” says Simon Angus, an economist from Monash University whose Internet Observatory tracks global internet connectivity in real time. “This appears to be closely aligned with human rights abuses because it is in fact a cloak of darkness.”

Lockdowns are cutting emergency and hospital workers off contact between emergency workers and hospitals and crippling financial systems, but governments are using them more frequently than ever. Figures from Access Now show that outages globally increased by 15% in 2021, compared to the previous year. Outages like these cause massive economic damage – estimated at $5.5 billion last year – but go largely unnoticed by the outside world, because the flow of information in and out of the affected countries has been halted.

In June, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, denounced the internet shutdown, saying: “Cutting the internet causes immeasurable damage, both in terms of material and human rights.”

no freedom

In Ukraine, that cloak of darkness fell an hour ago Russian invasion in Februarywhen a massive state-sponsored cyber attack on a major satellite internet disabled tens of thousands of Ukrainian modems, while Sudan cut off the internet. After her military coup. Civil unrest in Ethiopia and Kazakhstan has shut down the internet as governments try to prevent political mobilization and stop news of military crackdowns from emerging.

However, experts say Myanmar The most severe restrictions were imposed on recorded Internet freedom.

“Every different pattern of interruption reversed in the first few weeks [of the coup]says Doug Madhuri of Internet monitoring platform Kentik.

After an intermittent day-long shutdown in mid-February, the junta began shutting down the internet every night, an act that continued with the regular economic system for three months. Under the cover of digital darkness, they conducted night raids, smashing doors to drag high-profile politicians, activists, and celebrities. The raids have taken a deep psychological toll.

Soldiers look up from above as they walk along a street in Yangon during a protest against the military coup in Myanmar
Soldiers walk in a street in Yangon during a protest against the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021. Photo: Reuters

“I was talking to my friends late at night,” says a woman from Yangon. “As 1am approaches each night, this feeling of frustration will start to build up. It felt like they were in control of everything. There is no freedom.”

The nightly shutdown has become “a form of terror,” according to Angus. “It becomes a psychological rhythm and a sign that people have to put up with. It also sends a signal. We’re still in control,” she says.

The period of the nightly outages was followed by a complete nationwide lockdown of 73 days.

The effect of closings

Internet cuts are not limited to governments facing civil unrest. Every year, millions of internet users from Sudan to Syria and Jordan to India lose access to the internet during exam season as governments pull the plug in an effort to avoid high-tech cheating.

For the past five years, 21-year-old trainee Dr. Aya Heche has had to take her medical exams in Algeria without access to the internet. That’s because the government cuts off the internet every year for five days to make sure high school students don’t cheat on their baccalaureate exams.

“It’s always frustrating year after year that we have to be cut off from the rest of the world,” Hesch says.

The economic costs – and other less obvious effects – of lockdowns are spread across industries. Sudanese architect Taghreed one of the two remembers the struggles of surviving a month without online banking when the new military junta shut down the internet in 2021. “We raided children’s wallets and put everything together,” she says. But one of the biggest problems was simply keeping it cool at 40 degrees, when apps that sell electricity stopped working.

“Our first panicked moment came when we realized we couldn’t buy electricity,” she says. “We were shutting off everything around the house, while the kids were begging for air conditioning. It was too hot.”

India leads blanket lockdowns globally. In 2021, the world’s largest democracy shut down the internet 106 times – more than the rest of the world combined. The conflict-ridden region of Jammu and Kashmir has been the hardest hit Subject to 85 closures Under the guise of containing separatist violence. The power outage has closed Zoom classes for students, prevented doctors from communicating with their patients in remote areas, and paralyzed the banking system, causing mortgage holders to default on their loans. Apple crops rotted before they could be sold and businesses were crippled.

Protesters take part in a demonstration amidst the smoke of tear gas fired by Indian security forces in Srinagar in May 2022
Tear gas is fired at protesters at a demonstration in Srinagar in the Kashmir Valley in May 2022. Photo: Toosef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images

“We had nothing to do. We weren’t even able to watch TV,” says Sajid Yusuf Shah, a criminal lawyer turned media entrepreneur. “I was suffering from depression at the time. We feel powerless, we feel isolated, we feel powerless.”

David Kaye, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine and a former UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, says the high level of lockdown in India highlights a worrying trend.

“One way to think about how bad it is [is] Let’s see how it spreads from places like Tajikistan or Togo or southern Cameroon, where the rule of law is already very sporadic, to a place like India.

“It has been relegated to a toolbox for governments that already have the rule of law.”

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