Oleksandr Delyk - stock.adobe.co
The economic toll of deliberate internet shutdowns by governments reached nearly $24bn globally in 2022, following 114 major outages across 23 countries, research has found.
According to Top10VPN’s latest Cost of internet shutdowns report – which analysed every major internet shutdown by governments in 2022 – intentional internet outages affected around 710 million people around the world in 2022, representing a 41% year-on-year increase.
The countries most economically impacted by internet shutdowns were Russia ($21.59bn), which blocked access to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter in March following its invasion of Ukraine; Iran ($773m), which implemented shutdowns and slowdowns throughout the year (both nationally and in individual provinces) in response to widespread anti-government protests; and Kazakhstan ($410.7m), which imposed rolling internet blackouts after fuel shortage protests erupted in January.
“We are fiercely opposed to internet censorship and governments withholding access to the internet as a form of social control,” said the report.
“Our goal in doing this work is to keep public attention focused on just how damaging internet shutdowns truly are. This damage is both direct, in terms of the economic and human cost, and indirect, in that it forces people to use unsafe VPNs [virtual private networks] to try to circumvent the restrictions imposed upon them.
“We are also investigating the companies that provide the technology that make shutdowns possible.”
Some of most common internet shutdown methods include governments implementing telecommunications kill-switches or forcing internet service providers (ISPs) to power down critical circuits; manipulating the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) to re-route traffic away from specific websites so they effectively “disappear”; simply blocking all internet traffic to specific IP addresses.
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Domain Name System (DNS) filtering is also commonly used to stop URLs from retrieving the relevant destination, while various “internet throttling” techniques are also used to slow internet speeds to the point where anything beyond simple, text-based communication becomes impossible.
On the role technology firms play in internet shutdowns, Top10VPN digital rights researcher Samuel Woodhams told Computer Weekly that while ISPs often have limited room to push back against government-mandated shutdowns, they should at least be transparent about receiving censorship orders.
“They’re reliant on government licenses to operate and could risk their license being revoked if they don’t comply,” he said. “In countries with a single, nationalised ISP, there’s even less scope for pushback. We’ve even seen physical intimidation to force ISP operators to comply with authorities’ censorship orders.
“ISPs should still be transparent about receiving censorship orders, and communicate clearly with their customers about who ordered the directive and for what purpose. Unfortunately, this rarely happens.”
“International tech firms can still play a role in limiting the impact of internet shutdowns, as shown by WhatsApp and Signal’s latest proxy support feature,” said Woodhams. “These initiatives could prove invaluable for people trying to connect to the app in areas where it’s restricted.”
Context of shutdowns
Of all 114 government-initiated internet shutdowns that took place in 2022, 53 were in response to protest situations in the country, making it by far the most common reason. Top10VPN added that 51% of all internet disruptions targeted the right to freedom of assembly in some way.
Many of these protest-related outages were also accompanied by state violence, including the use of lethal force against protestors in at least four countries (Iran, Kazakhstan, Sudan and Sierra Leone).
Other pretexts governments used for shutting down or restricting internet access included the need to prevent cheating in exams, which happened 33 times, and the need to establish information control, which happened 15 times.
While political repression, non-compliance with local laws and military coups were also factors contributing to internet shutdown decisions, these occurred less often.
Further, while only three internet shutdowns were prompted by open conflict situations, these were the most costly, totalling losses of $21.77bn (although the vast majority of these losses were limited to Russia, where nearly 4,000 websites have been blocked since February).
In terms of the most blocked social media platforms, Twitter suffered a total of 21,650 hours of disruption – 56% more than Instagram and 64% more than Facebook – over the course of eight shutdowns. WhatsApp was also affected for 2,858 hours, while YouTube was affected for just 28 hours in total.
Taking into account all of its internet shutdown reports since 2019, Top10VPN said there have been 380 major internet shutdowns in 53 countries in that time, at a total cost of $41.48bn.
Top10VPN has said that while bypassing a full-blown internet blackout is not possible, there are still a number of countermeasures that people on the ground can use to avoid being completely cut off from the outside world during a shutdown.
This includes using VPNs to circumvent IP blocks and DNS filtering (although it noted that VPNs should be downloaded before an outage occurs due to governments blocking their downloads); using a Tor browser; buying an international roaming SIM card from a neighbouring country (although this could be quite costly to the individual); and adopting Signal as a messaging platform rather than WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.
Top10VPN further recommended that people affected by shutdowns could use peer-to-peer mesh networks that rely on Bluetooth to exchange messages rather than the internet, or otherwise organise “sneakernets”, whereby important information can be smuggled around or out of a country physically by people on encrypted USBs or external hard drives.
Speaking about the effects of internet shutdowns at a European Union delegation in September 2022, the assistant secretary general of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Office, Ilze Brands Kehris, said that shutdowns are generally imposed without much transparency, justification, or judicial or democratic oversight.
“Internet shutdowns cause profound damage to our societies. Given their indiscriminate and disproportionate impact, governments should refrain from imposing shutdowns. It is a tool that is very hard to justify, if at all, under international human rights law,” she said, adding that such shutdowns can also have unintended consequences, such as disruption to supply chains or health and welfare systems.
On the use of internet shutdowns during protests, Brands Kehris added that “the inability to document or report human rights violations and abuses during such periods can contribute to further violence and, at worst, atrocities”.
In June 2022, a UN Human Rights Office report warned that the real-life impacts of shutdowns on people’s lives and human rights have been vastly underestimated. “Too often, major communication channels or entire communication networks are slowed down or blocked,” it said, adding that this has deprived “thousands or even millions of people of their only means of reaching loved ones, continuing their work or participating in political debates or decisions”.