Internet shutdowns are an increasingly popular tool for digital repression. It’s what many in wealthy, liberal democratic countries can’t ever imagine happening—authorities blocking access to social media or services like WhatsApp, or even cutting internet access altogether, in the wake of mass assemblies, protests, or unrest.
These shutdowns have happened in Egypt, Zimbabwe, Iraq, and many other nondemocratic countries. Studying these incidents, a pattern starts to emerge: Citizens take to the streets; the government chooses to resist the resistance; and they shut down the internet under the guise of halting unrest. Underlying this pattern are weak or nonexistent checks and balances on government power that enable authorities to black out communications in the first place.
Justin Sherman (@jshermcyber) is a cybersecurity policy fellow at New America.
Yet India—the most populous democracy on earth—recently shut down the internet in the state of Assam (population: 31 million) after citizens protested a highly controversial citizenship law passed at the end of 2019. Services were then cut in Meghalaya, Tripura, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and elsewhere. This comes after India led the world in web shutdowns in both 2018 and 2019. India’s case highlights how internet repression isn’t confined to dictatorships.
Contrary to long-standing narratives about the “borderlessness” of cyberspace, the internet can absolutely be controlled by the state. Talk of “cyberspace” and the “digital domain” might invoke images of some imaginary space up in the air (or the cloud), but the internet is still composed of undersea cables, server farms, endpoint devices—all physical things. The internet isn’t always easy to control. Governments might need to build or purchase sophisticated technical capabilities to do so. But it’s certainly possible.
To this end, various regional governments in India have exerted control over parts of the internet in their borders to execute internet shutdowns. Riots and misinformation have been driving forces here, with problematic interplays between the two—a rash of cases where misinformation went viral on WhatsApp in India and subsequently led to violence. A September 2019 court decision, for instance, ruled that national security concerns could permit Indian authorities to shut down the internet despite concerns about free information access.
As WIRED has reported, the Indian government has asked WhatsApp for the ability to track and stop certain messages, conveniently “failing to sufficiently address underlying issues of intolerance, weak policing, caste divides, and nationalist rhetoric that has fueled violence again and again.” WhatsApp has denied these requests, so various governmental entities have turned to internet shutdowns as a result.
That said, it’s unclear if network shutdowns actually work to halt the spread of misinformation—further study is needed on the issue. Absent desired capabilities to monitor the internet within their borders, governments may want to at least do something (i.e., shut down web services) in light of misinformation-fueled riots; there could be legitimate motivations in certain cases.
But this doesn’t mean internet shutdowns aren’t repressive. To kill communications systems upon which citizens, businesses, emergency personnel, and others depend is an affront on the global and open internet and likely exacerbates ongoing violence. Even if protesters can still communicate and organize by word-of-mouth, shutdowns (in the eyes of authorities) may serve to at least disrupt mass organization and prevent outsiders from looking in.
India’s ongoing communications blackouts are a prime example of this blunt form of digital repression applied with highly questionable motivations. And despite a high court ruling about a week later that the Assam government must restore communications in that part of India, officials appear to have ignored the decision. The deferral of this issue to the courts may create additional problems given the presently high costs of network shutdowns and the long review process of the judicial system.