Last week, Pakistan shut down its internet services in response to nationwide protests over the arrest and prosecution of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. The closures are widely seen as an attempt to suppress dissent by Pakistan’s powerful military establishment. However, activists have been able to evade the closures through virtual private networks (VPNs). This 2021 article explains how internet outages work and why they are used by authoritarian regimes.
The shutdown began for journalist Shams Irfan on 16 October 2019. Irfan lives in Pampore, a town known for growing saffron and close to Srinagar, the traditional summer capital of the Indian-administered territory of Jammu and Kashmir, which is part of the wider Kashmir region. A few days earlier there had been a firefight between Kashmiri rebels and Indian security forces in which two rebels were killed, he says. As it is the norm now, if there is a firefight in any area, the first thing that is shut down is the internet. Usually, service is fully restored in about three days, but that didn’t happen this time.
I started to notice a pattern; it was not closed at random, continues Irfan. The internet was down from 7:30am to 11am and then 2:30pm to 10:30pm. He believes it is a real reduction plan. During previous internet shutdowns there was usually a reason given by the authorities, he says, but this current pattern has left even journalists like himself in the dark. What I have come to know is that the same pattern is being followed in many other areas of Kashmir, he says.
As of October this year, there have been 317 internet outages in Kashmir since 2012, part of 548 across India over the same period, contributing to the collapse of media freedoms. Governments are increasingly turning to shutting down the internet to control the spread of information often linked to political instability. The estimated cost to the global economy was $8 billion in 2019.
Arrests are also becoming more sophisticated and targeted. A regime no longer has to plunge an entire nation into darkness, but can lock down a certain group of people it deems a threat and disconnect them from each other and from the rest of the world, says Access Now campaigner Felicia Anthonio. a digital rights NGO.
Access Now is also tracking an increase in the length of internet outages. In Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where there is an ongoing separatist conflict, the internet has been blocked since November 4, 2020. This has made it more difficult for journalists and human rights activists to document war crimes or for ordinary people to continue own life .
You see this growing confidence [of] countries with recurring internet outages and seems to reflect the complex geopolitical situation, says Iginio Gagliardone, associate professor of Media and Communications at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he says, there was more of a sense that violating internet freedom risked some form of sanction from the international community. However, by 2005 Ethiopia could claim that the two-year interruption of SMS services was due to technical problems.
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[See also: The arrest of Imran Khan foreshadows a dark chapter for Pakistan]
There are several ways governments can block Internet use, explains Hanna Kreitem, technical expert, Middle East at the Internet Society, a global non-profit organization working to promote an open, globally connected and Safe. From throttling access speeds of particular services and websites in places as small as a few streets or an organization, to complete blackouts across the country, as happened in Egypt in 2011, these techniques are in use by many, many years, according to Kreitem and are a continuation of pre-internet restrictions on information.
We are seeing more targeted closures these days, he continues, such as limiting services in specific regions, preventing protesters in an area from live streaming on Facebook. This is made possible, he says, both by the availability and acceptability of using blackouts and by advances in technology, such as deep packet inspection (DPI), which allows you to block specific websites.
Internet service providers have no choice, explains Gagliardone. Some of them are only notified of the shutdown via a direct call to the CEO, and while most push back by asking for an official order, governments can mobilize national security laws in particular to make it happen, or the vendors will lose their license to operate. There’s very little room for negotiation, he adds.
But there are ways to counter internet outages. Access Now believes that raising awareness is important along with monitoring and understanding the impact on human rights. The group has also used strategic litigation to challenge government decisions to impose closures in Zambia, Togo, Indonesia and Sudan.
Circumvention tools are catching up to many of the techniques used to restrict access, says Kreitem, but there is still no tool that can protect against a complete blackout. Very small opening terminal (VSAT) data transmission technologies may be able to do this, but they are quite expensive and still quite limited, so they will only be used by the general public. Kreitem hopes that, at some point, decision makers realize that disrupting the internet is an ineffective tool and focus on better ways to solve their problems.
Back in Kashmir, Irfan has adjusted to the new normal. Regular shutdowns have disrupted her work routine and access to information, so she has changed her sleeping pattern and takes regular shuttles to areas like Srinagar city where there are better chances to access the internet, to read e- mail, send a single WhatsApp message or simply to find out what’s going on elsewhere. He has just recently invested in his own means of circumventing closures, but points out that this type of technology is expensive and not affordable for everyone.
We now live in a world where the internet has ceased to be a luxury but a necessity for everyone, be it a journalist or a small trader or a shop owner or a student, says Irfan. But such closures during peak business hours are taking us back to the dark ages.
[See also: Afghans who fled to Pakistan now find their lives blocked at every turn]
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