The Worrying Trend of Internet Shutdowns

Jillian C. York
Electronic Frontier Foundation

As the year draws to a close, EFF is looking back at the major trends influencing digital rights in 2013 and discussing where we are in the fight for free expression, innovation, fair use, and privacy. Click here to read other blog posts in this series.

Prior to January 2011, national or regional Internet “blackouts” were mostly unheard of. Although the MaldivesNepal, Burma, and China all preceded Egypt with this innovation, it was the shutdown initiated by former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak that set a new precedent and garnered global media coverage. Since then, Syria, Libya, and even San Francisco’s BART police have “pulled a Mubarak.”

But in 2013, Internet blackouts became de rigeur for embattled governments.

In August, Burma experienced a week of disruptions, the cause of which remains unclear. In Egypt’s North Sinai region, telephone and Internet networks were—according to a report from Mada Masr—intermittently shut down in September in the midst of military operations targeting militants there. In Sudan, where a brutal government crackdown in September on protests over fuel subsidy cuts resulted in the deaths of more than 30 people, authorities cut off Internet access in an apparent bid to stop the demonstrations. In October, Renesys reported that the Iraqi government had tried but failed to shut down the Internet. And more recently, Renesys spotted a 45-minute national outage from North Korea, for which the source was unclear.

The Syrian Internet has seen numerous outages throughout the year, some of which appear to be politically motivated and others of which may be structural. In October, Aleppo was without Internet for 17.5 hours, while in early December, the entire country’s Internet went down for a few hours.

Politically-motivated Internet outages are certainly trending. For governments, they pose an all-too-tempting way of stifling speech and keeping order during periods of protest or unrest, but as the BART telecommunications shutdown in San Francisco demonstrated, they can also prevent urgent communications from getting through and therefore may not be worth the risks they pose, even to the most despotic of regimes.

This article is part of our 2013 Year in Review series; read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2013.

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