Future Tense

This Is No Time for an Internet Blackout

Citing security to silence dissent is always a bad look, but right now the side effects are especially cruel.

A Wi-Fi icon with a big red slash through it.

As COVID-19 spreads, the internet is center stage. It is the source of everything from rampant lies to crucial information, and it is the great connector that has allowed many people to work from their couches and stay in touch with loved ones while in isolation.

It’s not only individuals and businesses taking advantage of ubiquitous connection; many governments are turning to increased surveillance to monitor and contain the pandemic’s spread. Singapore has developed an opt-in app that uses Bluetooth to monitor close contact among users, while Russia is using facial recognition cameras to watch for quarantine violations. The United States government is in conversation with the private sector about tracking phone location data to better monitor and contain the virus’s spread. The European Data Protection Supervisor even called for a “pan-European model COVID-19 mobile application, coordinated at EU level,” which would aggregate data in harmony with existing EU privacy laws.

These countries and others are leaning on technology in potentially alarming ways. Others are at the opposite side of the spectrum, with the internet shut down to varying degrees by the government. These communications blackouts were initiated months or in some cases years ago, but their continuation amid the pandemic truly underscores the dangers of internet shutdowns. Communication and information access are a matter of life and death for many people, and that is especially true during a pandemic.

Millions are without internet access in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas in northwest Pakistan, where the internet has been shut down for years. In Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the government has for months prevented citizens from getting online. The Indian government still imposes many restrictions on internet access in Kashmir, like prohibiting high-speed connections and blocking available websites. In all of these cases, the governments have cited violence and unrest as justifications for the blackouts.

Ethiopia shut down the internet in Wollega province in January in response to unrest. Only two weeks ago, well into the spread of the coronavirus in the country, did the government (which just declared a state of emergency in response to the pandemic) lift its ban on the internet and mobile phone networks. The government said it no longer needed the shutdown for security reasons, but this reversal also came after the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and other groups criticized the ongoing communications blackout. In total, millions of people worldwide are presently unable to get real-time news about the virus (or updates from friends and family) online.

Communications blackouts can occur in several different fashions. Sometimes governments will require internet service providers to heavily filter the web and block access to social media by inspecting Domain Name System, or DNS, queries.* Other times they’ll order internet service providers to literally turn off the power or effectively shut down by substantially throttling internet speeds. Blackouts of mobile cellular services may occur in tandem.

Network shutdowns are bad even when there isn’t an ongoing global crisis. They are a massive impediment to communications within a region, and they can also prevent the international community from gathering information on those regions and events on the ground. Their continuation during the pandemic, though, truly highlights the dangers associated with entirely cutting off digital connectivity.

People turn to the web for crucial information in their day-to-day lives, and that’s especially true in crisis. The fast-moving nature of COVID-19 news means an internet blackout seriously hinders citizens’ ability to get the most reliable details on everything like recent infection counts, social distancing measures imposed in their area, the latest medical advice, and corrections to circulating misinformation. In Kashmir, for example, residents have reported they’re unable to get reliable data about the pandemic. A blackout also hinders the public’s ability to communicate with others and call wirelessly for medical assistance. Without online information access, tangible, physical harm can result.

Furthermore, even though mis- and disinformation has been rampant online about the coronavirus—on Facebook and Twitter, on TikTok and WhatsApp, much of it causing serious harm—and governments have cited stopping misinformation as their reason for blacking out the internet, as in India, research does not indicate that shutting down the web halts the spread of false information. Internet shutdowns under the guise of stopping “fake news” may be misguided attempts to stop misinformation’s spread, but many are merely using that pretense as cover for repression.

The fact is repression works, and it hits vulnerable people the hardest. Shutdowns (as with many techniques of digital repression) have the worst effects on low-income and marginalized groups. Wealthier individuals may be able to circumvent internet access with mesh networks or virtual private networks, or use alternative means like satellite devices to get online.

As Human Rights Watch recently pointed out, internet shutdowns also disproportionately harm those who are especially dependent on online services—including women, LGBTQ individuals, transgender individuals, and individuals with disabilities, all of whom “are most likely to rely on the internet to protect their physical safety, access sexual and reproductive health information and care, and participate in social, professional, and economic life.” The surge in visits to domestic violence support websites during the pandemic highlights this fact with respect to this moment, when many people are locked inside with abusers. Internet shutdowns only exacerbate the disparate impacts of this kind of public health crisis.

While the human costs are great, internet shutdowns also hurt the economy—and COVID-19 highlights this fact as more and more people work remotely amid the increasing economic downturn around the world. As in other areas, the disparate harms of blackouts may spare more privileged individuals working in the information economy, but the impacts are still widespread as citizens are unable to do even simple things like remotely order food from local businesses.

Right now, despite the problems the internet is accelerating, it is allowing people to stay in touch with one another, to share their experiences, to coordinate grassroots efforts to make masks or support their communities in other ways. The pandemic should be a powerful reminder of the importance of free and open internet access in today’s interconnected world—and a call for the international community to more strongly condemn these ongoing forms of digital repression.

Correction, April 20, 2020: This post originally misstated that DNS stands for Domain Name Service. It stands for Domain Name System.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.