Internet blackouts were among the new security measures that followed May 2019 terror attacks in Sri Lanka, along with cordon-and-search operations by the army.

Internet blackouts were among the new security measures that followed May 2019 terror attacks in Sri Lanka, along with cordon-and-search operations by the army. AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

There’s Too Little Outcry When a Government Blocks the Internet

For its own citizens’ safety, and for grand strategy’s sake, the U.S. government needs to up the pressure.

When crisis strikes, governments around the world are increasingly reaching for the switches that limit or halt their citizens’ access to the internet.

In 2016, there were 75 such cutoffs; last year, there were 188, according to the advocacy group Access Now. Just in the past two months, the governments of Sri Lanka, Venezuela, Indonesia, and others have temporarily reduced or eliminated connectivity to large swaths of their populations.

Ostensibly, such cutoffs prevent the spread of disinformation, maintain public safety, and preserve law and order. In reality, they may do the opposite — and the U.S. national security community needs to understand why.

No country appears to use its cutoff switches more than India, which has executed nearly half of the known shutdowns. Jan Rydzak, of the Stanford Global Digital Policy Incubator, looked into what happened when Indians were denied access to social media platforms.

Related: Russians Will Soon Lose Uncensored Access to the Internet

Related: What Trump Could Do If He Declares a State of Emergency

Related: As Exports of Surveillance Tech Rise, Freer Countries Face a Choice

“Violent mobilization seems to grow in intensity during blackouts,” Rydzak concluded in a February paper, which “can turn a predictable situation into one that is highly volatile, violent and chaotic.”

Rydzak says it’s important not to generalize: “Conditions of each country vary greatly—and the effectiveness of shutdowns may vary as well.” 

Sri Lanka provides another case study. After terrorists killed some 250 people on Easter Sunday, the government on three occasion blocked access to social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp, and Viber. Officials said they were trying to prevent the spread of misinformation and reduce violence.

Rydzak says there’s no reason to believe they succeeded.

“Disinformation continued flowing among people despite the blackout, fueled by inaccurate reporting on television channels linked to the state,” he said. “The Sri Lankan government has not shown a shred of credible evidence to suggest that the previous three shutdowns successfully prevented disinformation and violence.”

But shutdowns do restrict the ability of Americans in an affected country to understand their situation and communicate with friends and family back home. “U.S. citizens abroad may not be able to access medical information or transportation during emergencies or determine which dangerous areas to avoid,” says Allie Funk, a research analyst at Freedom on the Net. Indeed, Sri Lanka’s Twitter blackout of May 13 removed a key tool that the U.S. embassy uses to send important information about security risks during crises. And its Facebook blackout kept American citizens in Sri Lanka from using the platform’s Safety Check. No surprise, then, that local Google searches for virtual private network services soared after the attack.

Such shutdowns also reduce the ability of journalists, foreign governments, and other organizations to understand what’s going on during a crisis. This can contribute to uncertainty, confusion, and violence. 

Despite all this, Rydzak believes that internet shutdowns are “likely to metastasize to other countries.”

That’s because limits on communication appeal to government leaders who fear their citizenry. In almost every case, Funk says, “restrictions to connectivity are blunt instruments that threaten rights to free expression and access to information, two fundamental pillars of democracy.”

Reversing the trend, then, should be a key part of Washington’s general effort to promote democracy. As Funk puts it, “The U.S. must serve as a leader of internet freedom by adopting internet-related laws that protect and advance fundamental rights and democratic principles.”

Congress can help by reintroducing and passing the Global Online Freedom Act, a bill proposed in 2013 that calls upon the executive branch to “use all appropriate instruments of U.S. influence to support the free flow of information without interference or discrimination.” This would include dissuading “U.S. businesses from cooperating with internet-restricting countries in effecting online censorship.”  

Rydzak suggests that the U.S. government should support “researchers as well as civil society organizations that defend digital rights and have a local presence in the countries where restrictions to Internet freedom are expanding fast.”

In general, there is too little outcry when a government limits its citizens’ access to the internet. 

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.