India led the world last year in Internet shutdowns that affected hundreds of millions of people, as governments cracked down on political rivals and tried to suppress protests.
At least 155 Internet shutdowns in 2020 disrupted access for people in 29 countries, according to a report on Wednesday from digital rights group Access Now. That included 28 full Internet blackouts that plunged people and in some cases entire cities, into “digital darkness”, the report said. Most recorded incidents took place in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
“The pandemic has forced offline activities online. So when governments intentionally disrupt Internet access it denies people the opportunities to continue their education and businesses, and access life-saving information about the pandemic,” said Access Now campaigner Felicia Anthonio.
The digital rights campaign says governments in 2020 increasingly used shutdowns in response to ongoing violence, especially in conflict zones. Other trends in recent years include efforts to hide political instability, thwart protests and suppress dissent, it said.
India consistently restricts access more than any other country, accounting for the lion’s share in 2020 with at least 109 disruptions, according to the report. The next highest was Yemen with six shutdowns.
Indian authorities cut off access and throttled bandwidth to quell demonstrations in recent years, including protests over a controversial citizenship law after it revoked the special autonomous status of Kashmir. Most recently, tens of thousands of protesting farmers blocked highways in defiance of the government’s decision to restrict phone and Internet access.
India’s supreme court in January ruled that indefinite Internet shutdowns in Kashmir were illegal following a legal challenge from civil society groups. The government has argued shutdowns were necessary to prevent disorder and curb fake news and hate speech.
Authorities in Ethiopia imposed at least four full outages, including a nationwide shutdown that lasted more than two weeks and affected more than 100 million people, the report said.
A mobile network disruption in Myanmar’s Rakhine and Chin states lasted 19 months. Following a coup in February 2021, Myanmar’s junta restored access in the region, but has since ordered new blackouts as it seeks to quell protests.
Disruptions overall fell last year to 155 from 213 in 2019, reversing recent trends, the Access Now report said.
But major disruptions in 2020 lasted 49% longer compared with the year before, according to digital privacy and security research group Top10VPN. They cost the world economy US$4-billion, nearly three quarters of which was incurred by India alone, it said.
“Internet shutdowns violate human rights and they are being used against marginalised groups around the world,” said Anthonio. “Switching off the Internet means a total disruption of daily activities, their rights and their lives.” — Reported by Marc Daniel Davies, (c) 2021 Bloomberg LP