Getting Internet access to everyone, everywhere is a challenge in and of itself. But for millions of people around the world, the digital divide is compounded by Internet disruptions created by government-enforced shutdowns.
Such shutdowns increased by 56% in 2021 and are expected to only grow in 2022, according to the Internet Society, which measures these disruptions on its Pulse platform.
Internet Society describes an Internet shutdown as "an intentional disruption of Internet-based communication, making it inaccessible or unavailable in a specific location."
Map of past and ongoing Internet disruptions
"In 2021, we've seen a worrying increase in the number of Internet disruptions, especially to Internet access over mobile networks. Many happen during democratic processes, including elections and protests, but we're also seeing disruptions during school exams, indicating that shutdowns are the new go-to solution," said Hanna Kreitem, technical expert, Middle East, Internet Society, who added that government officials cite cheating as a reason for shutting down access during exams.
Those disruptions have larger consequences. "Artificial Internet limitations create a chilling effect that go beyond the period of disruption and hinder people's livelihoods and diminish their ability to use the Internet."
While Internet Society sees instances of disruption on the rise, one notable change from 2020, said Kreitem, is that full Internet shutdowns are becoming "less common" than targeted, regional disruptions to specific services and mobile networks.
In the last few years, the vast majority of shutdowns have occurred in India. According to the Pulse Platform, there have been 242 Internet shutdown events in India, with one still ongoing since January 4, 2020, in the Hyderabad region in the state of Andhra Pradesh, where disruptions were initiated in response to the Million March protest.
"India is widely considered to be the world's largest democracy, yet it also holds the dubious distinction of having the highest number of Internet shutdowns worldwide. In 2020 alone, 109 shutdowns occurred in the country. By contrast, the nation with the second highest number of shutdowns (Yemen), had only six," said Kris Ruijgrok, political scientist working at the University of Amsterdam, in a blog post for Internet Society.
As Ruijgrok wrote in a report entitled "Understanding India's Troubling Rise in Internet Shutdowns," these disruptions have particularly risen in the North, with the worst shutdowns occurring in Jammu and Kashmir. These instances "are primarily utilized in an effort to suppress collective action and hide human rights abuses by security forces," Ruijgrok wrote. "On a more symbolic level, longer shutdowns in the region also serve as a collective punishment for the Kashmiris who strive for greater political recognition."
While Internet Society expects these global disruptions will increase this year, it's also imploring governments to stop engaging in these practices out national self-interest. One reason it cites in a statement on shutdowns is economic, noting that network connectivity is essential to business operations. "Shutdowns also imply that a government believes taking such an action is acceptable, suggesting that the country's economy is not ready to join the global digital economy."
Further, it adds, "Internet shutdowns are a detriment to growth as they have an immediate financial impact on a national economy."
Global Internet monitor NetBlocks helps make that economic point. According to its Cost of Shutdown Tool (COST), a hypothetical nationwide Internet shutdown would cost India INR106.2 billion (US$1.4 billion) per day.
All in all, said Internet Society's Kreitem, government-directed Internet shutdowns are a digital divide issue, as they not only disrupt a population's ability to connect to services for work and daily life at any given moment, but they trigger broad distrust of what's supposed to be critical infrastructure.
"The longer-term effects of a shutdown is that people lose trust in the Internet," said Kreitem, "and that's a bad thing."
At the time of this writing, Internet Society was tracking multiple ongoing and new shutdowns in January 2022, including a nationwide Internet disruption in Kazakhstan, which commenced January 4, in reaction to protests against rising energy prices.
As of January 11, said NetBlocks in a tweet, service had been restored to "let users go online a few hours each day."
— Nicole Ferraro, site editor, Broadband World News; senior editor, global broadband coverage, Light Reading. Host of "The Divide" on the Light Reading Podcast.