Over the past decades, the internet has thoroughly reshaped the way people communicate and do business across the world. For that reason, denying access to online services in this day and age can seriously disrupt lives and livelihoods, not to mention political activism.
And unsurprisingly, it's the latter that more and more countries around the world seek to disrupt in times of crisis and political unrest, when the ability of political and other opponents to efficiently communicate and organize poses a grave danger to the authorities.
Aware of the power the internet has in this context, an increasing number of governments around the world are choosing to shut it down when that suits them, according to a New York Times article.
Data provided by a non-profit, Access Now, who said 23 countries deployed internet blackouts 114 times as a control technique in the first six months of 2019 alone – with India said to be reaching for this measure more often than any other state.
In general, the practice is prevalent in Asia and Africa, and it seems that the rather heavy-handed move is favored by those who don't already have more fine-grained censorship in place. Internet users' access is controlled, to be completely or partially disabled, thanks to ISPs who agree to put these restrictions in place.
One way to get around internet restrictions are Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) – but only so long as they are not shut down as well. As for the damage internet blackouts, even if for the most part temporary, inflict on the economy – it reached $2.4 billion July 2015-June 2016, according to the Brookings Institution, a US think tank.
These losses are all the more serious as they mostly affect societies and economies in developing countries.
Like any tool, the internet and the technology behind it can be used to advance democracy or slow it down in a variety of ways – as users have been finding across the world, in various countries enjoying different levels of freedoms.
“Governments sometimes justify their actions as an attempt to stop the spread of ‘fake news' or hate speech, or to keep students from cheating during exams. But these explanations often mask the real motivation,” the report quotes Berhan Taye, a researcher with Access Now.