Internet shutdowns reached a new high in 2022, with an increased number of countries enforcing this tactic as "a weapon for control" and "a shield for violence."
There were 187 instances across 35 countries, with India being the biggest single offender for the fifth year in a row.
These are the worrying findings coming from the latest report of Access Now (opens in new tab), the digital rights NGO behind the coalition #KeepItOn which started its battle against internet shutdowns in 2016 and now counts over 300 organisations involved across 105 countries worldwide.
And, while citizens have been increasingly turning to VPN services as a means to bypass restrictions, these aren't always enough to mitigate the consequences of such blackouts.
.@accessnow and the #KeepItOn coalition documented at least 187 incidents of #InternetShutdowns in 35 countries in 2022. Read our latest report: Weapons of control, shields of impunity: Internet shutdowns in 2022: https://t.co/r8pGzMB9uI @cipesaug @SFLCin @InternewsOPTIMA pic.twitter.com/ddIEVn4bDuMarch 1, 2023
Protests and conflict as the main triggers
Talking about the reasons behind these attacks, #KeepItOn Lead Felicia Anthonio explained to Al Jazeera (opens in new tab) that governments disrupted the internet to "fuel their agendas of oppression – manipulating narratives, silencing voices, and ensuring cover for their own acts of violence and abuse."
Protests and active conflict were the main triggers behind internet shutdowns in 2022, counting for 62 and 33 instances respectively. Even worse, 133 of the 187 shutoffs occurred alongside some form of violence - the highest toll compared to previous years.
Once again India topped the list of the most active countries with a total of 84 internet shutdowns over the 12-month period. Russian military forces cut the internet at least 22 times to Ukrainians, while launching cyberattacks and destroying communication infrastructures.
People in Iran were also among those most affected last year, with 15 out of the total 18 shutdowns occurring during the anti-government protests that are still ongoing.
While the total attacks were slightly less than those enforced in 2018 and 2019, the number of perpetrators (35) was the highest recorded in a single year. In fact, over half of the world' population suffered some form of internet disruption in 2022.
At the same time, internet shutdowns are "lasting longer, targeting specific populations, and are being wielded when people need a connection the most - including during humanitarian crises, mass protests, and active conflict and war," reads the report.
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The year opened up with 16 active shutdowns from 2021, while ending with another 16 imposed restrictions, among which 12 had been active at least for one year.
People living across the Tigray region in Ethiopia have suffered over 780 days of communications blackout by the end of 2022. This is the longest shutdown ever recorded and still ongoing.
Not far off is Myanmar that counts over 500 days of internet shutdowns, without any signs of stopping soon. The regime is also aiming to criminalize VPNs, the circumvention tool many use to navigate such a restricted web.
Authorities are also becoming more sophisticated, "evidently to more directly target certain groups" and "to minimize economic repercussions." Specific platforms blocks and mobile network shutdowns were then preferred to a total shutoff. That's because these attacks aren't just costing people's digital rights, but also billions to the worldwide economy. In July, the toll was already $10 billion.
Even worse, governments are increasingly adopting a multi-layered approach combining shutdowns, censorship and surveillance tactics. Under this light, these attacks can be seen as "attempts to force people onto alternative platforms and infrastructure where surveillance and censorship are easier to implement."
That's evident looking at Russia's quest to seize control of the internet in Ukraine, for example. It's also the case in Turkmenistan, which enforced four blackouts last year while developing a decentralized national intranet.
Fighting back internet shutdowns
As Anthonio said to Al Jazeera: "Secure internet access belongs to all, and we will continue to meet these attacks on human rights with collective defiance."
The #KeepItOn coalition has been growing over the years, attracting the support of over 300 organizations across the world, and international actors are increasingly investigating the impact of these attacks on human lives with the UN Commission on Human Rights issuing its first ever report (opens in new tab) in June last year.
On a more technical level, software engineers are also actively developing new technology to enable users to fight back amid a harsh crackdown on VPN services making them ineffective in many instances.
Lantern, for example, has been making online censorship "a very difficult thing to achieve" since 2013. It now set to add new functionalities like an encrypted chat tool and a web proxy project to create a gateway between the restricted and open internet.
Another anti-censorship app, Snowstorm, can be described as the bridge to reconnect a splintering web. Still in beta at the time of writing, it's a faster and better version of Snowflake currently available with the Tor browser.
Serene, the developer behind Snowstorm, said: "Given how fundamental the Internet is now in all of our lives, it's like a basic need, similar to food, water and clean air. That shouldn't be manipulated, shouldn't be blocked, shouldn't be fettered in any way."