State-sponsored internet and app shutdowns damage economies—and freedom

People protest in Los Angeles, California, in support of anti-government protesters in Iran.
People protest in Los Angeles, California, in support of anti-government protesters in Iran.
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Just weeks ago, people around the United States suffered an internet outage following a technical failure. From Chicago to Boston to San Francisco, online business transactions halted, emails could not be sent, social media could not be checked and people became piercingly aware of how ingrained internet usage has become in our daily lives.

It lasted about 90 minutes, the result of a misconfiguration at a telecommunications and internet service provider tied to Comcast, among others. Those affected scrambled to their phones to alert the cable giant to the issue that hindered their productivity and squashed their ability to communicate.

While internet outages are a relatively rare occurrence in the United States, this is not the case for many around the world. In fact, internet access is far from a given in many parts of the world. Politically-motivated restrictions to internet access are on the rise globally. Barely a week goes by without news of another government-mandated disruption of internet access, as is happening right now in Iran. Driven largely by political and national security concerns, state-ordered internet shutdowns are on the verge of becoming the “new normal”.

These shutdowns aren’t always blanket disruptions. In many countries in the western world, governments are cracking down on certain platforms and communications. Brazil has banned the popular messaging service, Facebook-owned WhatsApp, four times in the last two years because the company could not provide encrypted chat logs related to criminal investigations. Brazilian police went so far as to arrest a senior Facebook executive in 2016 for failing to turn over the information.

Here in the US, it’s getting closer to home, and we cannot turn a blind eye to it. Countries we wouldn’t expect to restrict internet freedom are incrementally stepping up their control in unexpected and worrying ways. Even the world’s largest democracy, India, currently has the highest number of shutdowns with a record-setting 54 political disruptions of access across various Indian states in 2017.

In a globally connected world, social and economic freedoms depend on reliable access to the internet. People in countries with access to the internet anytime, anywhere—ubiquitous connectivity—rarely pause to think about the privilege it gives them. But an open and free internet is not universal. In fact, governments around the globe are shutting it down, with greater regularity than ever before.

According to data from the 2017 Freedom on the Net Report, 19 out of 65 countries it analyzed had at least one government-ordered network shutdown during the coverage period, up from 13 countries in the 2016 report and seven countries in the 2015 report. Still according to the report, of the 3.4 billion people with access to the internet, 52% live in countries where social media or messaging apps were blocked within the past year.

Under the guise of ensuring public order or national security, complete and partial internet disruptions have become mainstream in many parts of the world. Current data from Access Now indicates that India and Pakistan lead with the most documented shutdowns, followed by the Middle East and North Africa and Sub-Saharan regions.

Yet, the alarming rise of blunt shutdowns targeting entire networks is only one part of the equation. More insidious incursions against access are happening with similar effects. For example, mobile-specific apps such as WhatsApp have been regularly targeted (12 of the 65 countries by Freedom House), not only through blocking orders but also through throttling of traffic that effectively disables people’s ability to use the service, such as was the case in Turkey recently.

In Zimbabwe and India, governments have resorted to hike the cost of mobile data plans or suspend pay-as-you go mobile data plans to limit further use of mobile communication tools for civic engagement. In Europe, tensions around the popular Referendum in Catalonia have led to courts to impose on internet technical actors to monitor hundreds of domain names for political content considered illegal.

Why does it matter?

While we often hear, for good reason, that internet shutdowns pose a threat to human rights and social justice, governments, development agencies and investors should not ignore the grave economic consequences of taking whole populations offline.

The internet is the lifeline to the global economy and each shutdown contributes to a more divided world, divided between those who benefit from unfettered internet access and those for whom the internet is an unreliable luxury.

Having little or no internet access means digital payments can’t be reliably made, contracts can’t be signed and data in the cloud can’t be accessed. In terms of global scope, this impacts countries’ gross domestic products in very tangible ways. Research by the Brookings Institution shows that between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016, internet shutdowns cost countries about $2.4 billion. While measuring the economic cost of shutdowns is not a perfect science, these numbers provide an order of magnitude that should raise the eyebrows of any Economic and Trade Minister, in developed and developing countries alike.

On a more individual level, shutdowns hurt entrepreneurs in the parts of the world most in need of digital-led innovation for their future. Earlier this year, a three-month shutdown affected the Anglophone part of Cameroon—a region also known as “Silicon Mountain.” Local entrepreneurs lost contracts and couldn’t conduct important transactions, leading to financial losses, business closures and firing of employees. In India, the Brookings Institution estimated that internet shutdowns led to nation-wide losses of roughly $968 million, the highest in their study. Yet, paradoxically, India is also one country that has set course for a very ambitious and forward-looking digital economy plan, built on demonetization. What is true in Cameroon and India is also true in the many other regions affected by deliberate disruptions to internet access.

And the inability to work at digital speed is just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath these issues is the more profound impact on trust. If people don’t know whether they will have connectivity on any given day, they can no longer rely on that connectivity to build internet-based businesses. They may shy away from investment opportunities. They may cut their losses before they’ve even begun. If they don’t have the ability to be actors of tomorrow’s internet of everything, they’ll keep their feet in the physical world and not the virtual one.

Without a lifeline to the internet in all regions of the world, a global market where everyone can be a creator and innovator simply cannot exist. In our day and age, this is unacceptable.

To stand by and watch countless governments disable their own people from success is untenable. The United Nations Human Rights Council condemned state-sponsored interruptions of internet access, touting the free flow of information online to all.

Arguments on the sides of national security and human rights have been voiced in the past few years, legitimately, but with little effect in changing the shutdown trend. It is time that we consider the economic impact of these shutdowns, and bring new voices to the discussion, including venture capitalists, development banks, and economic and trade ministers.

It is not an isolated problem in parts of the world thought of as unknown or unimportant. It is a global issue of the utmost importance for all of us. We must leave no one behind.