'When the internet goes down the night raids start': Inside the deadly phenomenon of web shutdowns

Roland Oliphant
·7 min read
Web shutdowns are increasing
Web shutdowns are increasing

Late in a December evening Masrat Jan, a 40 year old mother of four from the village of Sangria Barzol in Indian-administered Kashmir, developed sudden chest pain and begged her husband to get her to hospital.

Her family rushed her to the nearest hospital. But because it had no cardiac specialists, she was referred to another facility more than another hour’s drive away.

She died there five minutes after arrival - a collateral victim, doctors explained, of a draconian security environment.

“The Doctors told us if there was an Internet, they could have contacted the cardiologists in Srinagar and stabilized her,” her father, Gul Mohammad Shah, told the Telegraph. “She would have survived had there been an internet service available.”

India’s government shutdown internet, mobile phone and landline services in Kashmir before stripping the region of its partial autonomy on August 5, 2019, saying it wanted to stave off civilian protests.

Riot police in Myanmar stand guard with roses given to them by protesters
Riot police in Myanmar stand guard with roses given to them by protesters

The Kashmir blackout, which finally ended earlier this month, stood out because of its record length and because it was imposed by a democratic government. But it is far from unique.

At any time over the past year or so, at least one part of the planet has been subject to an Internet black out by its own government, often at a shocking cost in freedom, prosperity, and human lives.

In July 2020, Ethiopia, East Africa’s biggest economy and most important transport hub, imposed a blackout for nearly three weeks on the pretext of trying to suppress hate speech.

On August 9 to 12, authorities in Belarus cut the country off from the World Wide Web while police conducted a brutally violent crackdown on protesters angered by president Alexander Lukashenko’s apparently fraudulent election “victory.”

Authorities in Uganda pulled a similar trick in January amid a sustained crackdown on opponents of President Yoweri Museveni during presidential elections.

And on February 1, military authorities in Myanmar imposed their own blanket Internet blackout as cover for their coup against Aung San Suu Kyi - ironically as they lifted a more local 18 month shut down in the conflict-torn Rakhine and Chin states.

They cut the country off again the following weekend, and for the past two weeks have been imposing a nightly blackout from 1 Am to 9 AM.

The alarming truth, said Alp Toker, a British technologist who five years ago set up NetBlocks, an observatory that monitors the phenomena, is that “Internet shutdowns have always been there, but the world has not always been good at tracking them.”

“It turns out they are more prevalent than previously thought and they come in a variety of forms from regional shutdowns to nation scale shutdowns. The most damaging ones are the near-total information vacuum in which misinformation can spread and information is dominated by government.”

Kashmiri men registers his number before making a call from a free public telephone provided by Indian paramilitary soldiers for civilians outside their base camp after a communications blackout
Kashmiri men registers his number before making a call from a free public telephone provided by Indian paramilitary soldiers for civilians outside their base camp after a communications blackout

For authoritarian governments, the appeal of shutting down communications is obvious.

It disrupts opposition groups trying to organise on social media or messaging Apps, gives the government a monopoly on information, and makes it extremely difficult for international media and foreign governments to uncover atrocities.

Above all, it induces fear.

“We notice a pattern,” Nwe Oo, a woman in her 20s who has been active in the protests in Yangon since the February 1 coup in Myanmar. “When the internet is cut at night, the regime starts to arrest civil society activists and public servants who are part of the civil disobedience movement.”

“The blackout is affecting almost all the things we do in our protests and communications,” she added. “It is scary and dangerous because everyone is in the dark and we don’t know if there’s police violence happening nearby.”

Those failures point to two inherent problems for governments contemplating internet black outs.

Firstly, there is a practical challenge: it turns out that unless your national internet infrastructure, like China’s, was constructed from the ground-up to allow censorship, it is extremely difficult to make a blackout watertight.

“Any government trying to restrict access to any kind of information is going to have the same kind of problems. It was originally designed to withstand a nuclear attack - so you could wipe out large chunks of it and the information would re-route itself. It is not designed to be contained,” said Stephan Freeman, an independent cyber security consultant in London.

"In a relatively developed democracy it is not possible to put the Internet down because there are too many routes. If you have a satellite phone you can get access anyway, unless the country decides to jam the signal," he added. In future, he suggests, things like Starlink, Elon Musk's concept for a satellite-based global internet service not physically connected to anything, will make that challenge even greater.

Myanmar protesters hold banners as they gather outside the US Embassy
Myanmar protesters hold banners as they gather outside the US Embassy

In Myanmar, some protesters have worked out how to use VPNs and smuggled Thai SIM cards to help circumvent the blocking of Facebook and other social media platforms as well as the blackouts. When the government extended the rolling overnight blackout to midday last Monday, it failed to thwart that day’s pro-democracy demonstrations - which turned into the largest yet.

In Belarus, journalists and protesters found that small service providers were able to continue providing enough bandwidth to send emails for sometime during the three-day August shutdown. Certain powerful VPNs were also found to circumvent the weekly shutdowns to coincide with Sunday rallies that followed.

Secondly, it involves immense self-inflicted collateral damage - in terms of economic losses, social disruption, and even lives.

NetBlocks’ cost of shutdown tool, which uses publicly available economic indicators to make a rough estimate of the cost of Internet blackouts, puts the damage of a single day’s total blackout in Myanmar at over $24 million.

It puts the cost of Belarus’ three-day shut down last August at $170 million. Mr Toker, who built the tool, admits it is a rough estimate, but says it chimes with the estimates out there.

“What is clear, is that it is a lot. You are basically carrying out a cyber attack on your own population,” he said.

Doctors at the Save Heart Initiative (SHI), the online platform which Kashmir cardiologists use to guide medical practitioners in rural hospitals through the urgent stabilisation of heart attack patients and which should have saved Marat Jan, say they have saved at least 2000 patients from death in the two years before the service was taken off line.

“At least 30 percent of these 2000 patients must have died in absence of the SHI,” said Dr. Irfan Ahmad Bhat, one of the founders of the SHI.

Those concerns appear to have stayed in some dictators’ hands.

Vladimir Putin’s government in Russia is known to shut down mobile Internet at opposition rallies, and has passed laws that would theoretically allow it to cut the country off from the rest of the World Wide Web.

But the consequences for Russia’s hyper-connected economy are so grim that authorities are believed to be reserving the option as a “war fighting” measure, said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security services.

Muzzling the domestic opposition, at least for now, is simply not worth the cost.

“Governments who think they can control information by shutting down the Internet are on a hiding to nothing,” said Mr Freeman.

But not everyone is so optimistic.

“My background is in artificial intelligence - I am your classic techno optimist. But that optimism has been shaken by what I have seen,” said Mr Toker.

"I have seen countries descend into the information abyss again and again. Huge amounts of money are being spent so people cannot communicate when governments don’t want them to. So yes, the technology is resilient, but that presupposes the existence of good faith actors. When they are not there, the odds are set against you.”