The age of internet shutdowns has dawned, and governments all across the world are disrupting connectivity to control what people say or do online.
Africa is among the most affected regions globally, with at least 46 recorded shutdowns between 2016 and 2018. Since the beginning of 2019, Sudan, DR Congo, and Zimbabwe all cut off internet services, and Chad has continued to block social media platforms including Twitter and WhatsApp for almost a year now.
National leaders, using outdated laws, are now regularly issuing directives to telcos to cut connectivity ahead of elections, national exams, or anti-government protests—remaining obdurate even in the face of global criticism.
This has raised concerns about how the internet is fast becoming the new frontier for state clampdown on free speech. The issues are also troubling many digital activists as more nations also increase online surveillance and import sophisticated censorship and monitoring tools from China. These disruptions are also not just bad for economies, activists say, but also contribute to the swirl of misinformation that persists when electronic communications are rendered inaccessible. As officials reach for the kill switch—or not— here’s how to keep yourself safe and stay online before, during, and after shutdown.
Internet shutdowns have become much more symptomatic of an increased trend to use commercial spyware to monitor and extract information from digital users. That’s why it’s important to seek secure options to communicate and stay connected whether a blackout is imminent or not, says Moses Karanja, a digital security researcher and doctoral student at the University of Toronto.
“Seeing most of the internet shutdowns are an indicator of heightened insecurity in the regions they happen, online security is also just as important as staying online,” argues Karanja.
Owing to the constant shifts in digital threat models, one way to avoid them is to update whatever tools or apps you have downloaded on your devices. This could save you from data breaches, widespread malware attacks, and other vulnerabilities that software revamps could have already fixed. Karanja also recommends peer-reviewed programs like Security Planner, which customizes security needs on a personal basis. These include enabling two-factor authentication on important accounts, making sure software stays updated and using encrypted chats to protect private communications.
Over the last few years, there has been a shift from general, countrywide blackouts to targeted ones. From Cameroon to Ethiopia and beyond, surgical shutdowns have zoned in on specific regions or cities besides popular websites or applications. Julie Owono, the executive director of Paris-based advocacy Internet Sans Frontières says these tailored stoppages are akin to “the building of a great firewall” that makes “customization of censorship easier.”
The best strategy to avert these cut-offs is to prepare in advance and have a virtual private network to circumvent blocking or throttling. These tools include Psiphon, an open source web proxy that helps users skirt content-filtering systems. There is also Tor, which essentially prevents people from tracking your location or spying on your browsing habits. Besides helping encrypt your internet traffic, Orbot also hides it by bouncing through a series of computers around the world. The Tails operating system uses cryptographic tools to encrypt files and email messages.
Applications including Lantern and FireChat also use peer-to-peer networks to create a decentralized network of nodes and allow users to communicate during blackouts. Messaging apps like Briar are also becoming popular, keeping users in short proximities, like in the recent Zimbabwe shutdown, connected.
For journalists and civil society advocates who are engaged in reporting sensitive information, it is important to know where to seek help before, during, and after blackouts. Access Now, for instance, runs a 24-hour digital security helpline, which can advise users even during emergencies. Reading their digital security booklet can be a key place to start.
Organizations like NetBlocks also run independent observations throughout a crucial period like elections and provide an early warning when connectivity falters regionally or nationwide. NetBlocks director Alp Toker says users can also contribute their own measurements by using the NetBlocks scanner, which probes for internet disruptions in their respective nations. After all, Toker explains, “an informed citizenry is needed more than ever to keep watch.”
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