Internet Blackouts: Why They Are Harming Democracy and How to Push Back

07.19.2021 | Rachael Merritt

In the digital age, an open and inclusive internet is central to fostering democratic and civic engagement. As communities around the globe increasingly rely on the internet to share and debate ideas, receive access to information, or conduct business, an open and inclusive internet helps promote economic inclusion, free expression, and social accountability.

With the rapid integration of internet-based technologies into almost every aspect of public and private life, the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is rapidly becoming more relevant in the digital space. At the same time, however, recognizing that the internet is now one of the most valued ways for people to connect, authoritarian states and many governments in struggling democracies are increasingly cracking down on an open and inclusive digital space. One tactic deployed by governments has been the use of internet disruptions, also known as blackouts, to hinder economic, social, and political rights.

Blackouts

Government-led internet blackouts are intentional disruptions of the internet or electronic communications. Blackouts can be the total shutdown of internet-based communications in a country or region, service-based blocking of specific two-way communication platforms, or bandwidth throttling that slows communications.

The world saw significant use of internet blackouts in 2020, with civil society organization Access Now reporting at least 155 internet shutdowns in 29 countries, including India and Nigeria. Blackouts are often imposed amid election cycles, political resistance movements, and moments of crisis, hindering the ability of democratic institutions and civil society to function and support citizens during crucial moments. Internet disruptions also violate two main principles laid out in the Democratic Principles for an Open Internet. First, that “everyone has an equal right to access and use a secure and open internet,” and second, that “everyone should have universal and open access to the internet’s content free from discriminatory prioritization, filtering or traffic control on commercial, political or other grounds.”

Internet blackouts indiscriminately harm individual users, undermine opportunities for democratic participation, and impede inclusion in the digital economy. Here is how key sectors are impacted:

Private Sector

Many business transactions are halted. According to the Global Network Initiative (GNI), “countries can lose 1.9% of their daily GDP (Gross Domestic Product)” during a shutdown. Disruptions to e-commerce, mobile banking, and international investment all negatively impact the private sector during a shutdown. As one of the fastest growing digital economies, when Pakistan experienced an internet shutdown in major cities on April 16, 2021, e-commerce sites of small- and medium-sized businesses took a significant blow. One online clothing retailer lost 50,000 Pakistani ruppees that day, as the company was invested heavily in social media advertisements. In another case, Access Now reports that prolonged digital sieges have crippled businesses in Jammu and Kashmir, as India has imposed months of internet blackouts.

Media

Local independent media suffers during an internet blackout. Regional communication channels that share news, often disseminated via social media platforms or internet-messaging platforms, are particularly disabled. As a result of internet blackouts, time-sensitive stories, such as reports on civil unrest or election processes are rendered ineffective. In February, the coup in Myanmar was rapidly followed by internet restrictions. During this time, civilians had no ability to access information, report on protests and ongoing human rights abuses, or organize socially. There was almost no way to report on killings and protests to the outside world to gain support and solidarity.

Civil Society

Political repression goes unchecked and information gathering for legal recourse is severely limited. There is no method of digital assembly and organization during critical times. Support from international actors that aid democratic processes is cut off and

disinformation spreads, which is harmful to democratic processes. On January 13, 2021, the Ugandan government cut internet access on the eve of the presidential elections. As a result, around 17.5 million internet subscribers were not able to organize on social media, fully exercise their right to vote, and cover crackdowns of political opposition actors.

Multi-stakeholder Advocacy Tools and Approaches

As stakeholder groups such as the local business community, civil society, and independent media increasingly feel these repercussions, coordinated multistakeholder efforts to develop advocacy strategies to push back against the prolific use of internet disruptions are essential.

Recognizing the importance of multistakeholder action to defend digital rights, CIPE partners with the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to facilitate the Open Internet for Democracy Initiative (OIDI). This grassroots-driven initiative connects private sector actors and representatives from civil society and independent media from across nascent and declining democracies to challenge restrictions on internet freedom, preserve an open and secure digital space, and defend digital rights. Under this initiative, CIPE, NDI, and CIMA also organize the Open Internet for Democracy Leaders Program to empower emerging leaders in the private sector, media, and civic space from across the globe to build their advocacy and organizing skills to protect internet freedom.

With input from its global network of partners, CIPE, NDI, and CIMA collaborated with the inaugural cohort of the Open Internet for Democracy Leaders to produce the Open Internet for Democracy Advocacy Playbook. This resource serves as a practical tool for advancing digital freedoms, focusing on tailored approaches to advocacy that apply across diverse local contexts. In the context of pushing back against internet disruptions, the Playbook recommends that digital rights advocates:

1) Document and monitor internet disruptions and platform restrictions utilizing tools such as OONI or Netblocks;

2) Build coalitions with national, regional, and global networks to raise awareness about the impacts of internet disruptions. Collaboration between private and public actors is necessary to effectively apply pressure on the appropriate organizations—whether they be major telecommunication companies or the national government. The private sector can also support advocacy efforts by highlighting economic impacts of internet disruptions; and

3) Build resilience against disruptions by identifying other ways to conduct advocacy offline or through circumvention tools.

The local private sector, civil society organizations, and independent media can play an essential role in advocating for digital rights and ensuring that the internet remains an inclusive space where everyone can engage socially, economically, and politically. For more information about the Open Internet for Democracy Initiative and its resources, please visit: https://openinternet.global/