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Communication Abroad – Internet Shutdowns

If you travel to, or live in a place with a high probability of communication restrictions, you should know how this occurs and what to do if it does.

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Internet shutdowns are a growing trend among various governments and are causing concern worldwide. But, before we get into the details of this growing issue, it would be good to place a definition on it.

According to internetsociety.org, an Internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of Internet-based communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unavailable, for a specific population, location, or mode of access, often to exert control over the flow of information.

Why is the internet being shut down?

Now that we know the what, let’s take a look at the why. The reasoning behind these shutdowns depends on who you talk to. If you listen to the governments who are behind the shutdowns, the reasoning is simple. They state they are trying to stop the spread of misinformation and the organization of illegal activities. If you talk to the people living in and visiting these areas, they will tell you the government is trying to oppress their freedoms.

The first widely accepted time a government ordered a nationwide internet blackout was in January of 2011. May folks consider this pivotal event a game-changer. The popular revolts of the Arab Spring were spreading to Egypt, and protests against then-President Hosni Mubarak were growing.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, as well as popular messaging apps, were an important means of sharing information and coordinating protests by citizens. The Egyptian government ordered all internet providers to disconnect, and almost immediately, 80 million people were offline.

“What I’m seeing is a definite increase in the shutting down of the internet for political reasons,” said David Kaye, the United Nations’ special rapporteur for the protection of free expression, who monitors rights violations across the globe and reports to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council.

How does it happen?

A lot of countries can do this easily and very little stands in the way of shutdowns happening. In reality, there is no guaranteed right to the internet. However, most see it as a freedom of speech and more and more believe it is, or should be, a right.

Governments can easily restrict websites, apps, and slow it down (throttling) to prevent streaming video/sharing video, etc. The reality is the companies who offer internet services are often licensed by the governments who are restricting access. These companies agree to abide by the laws of the government giving them the authority to operate. There is often little they can do. Keep in mind, outside of these private companies, there are also those under total government control.

In the U.S., major telecommunications companies such as AT&T Inc.and Verizon Communications Inc. publish reports disclosing the number and nature of demands they receive from government and law-enforcement bodies. These can include subpoenas for subscriber information, court orders for wiretaps, emergency requests for information and in some cases rough estimates of National Security Letters issued by the FBI. 

Recent Events

The most recent internet shutdowns in India are the longest ever recorded in a Democracy and only ended after restoring 301 “approved” websites. Keep in mind, services were also throttled when connections were limited to 2G. The internet blackout in Kashmir lasted nearly 6 months. The reason provided by the Indian government was to prevent terrorist activities.

Outside of this major event, there have been several smaller-scale events in recent months. Netblocks.org has reported the following events in 2020:

Parts or all of the internet were shut down at least 213 times in 33 countries last year, the most ever recorded, according to Access Now, a nonprofit that advocates for a free internet and has monitored the practice for a decade. Out of these 213 incidents, approximately 65 of them were during government protests.

What to do

Based on where you are traveling, there may be some alternative forms of communication you can take advantage of. However, you have to be careful during these types of events. If a government is shutting down communication, for whatever reason, they will not have a favorable view of your efforts to get around those restrictions.

A while back I wrote an article on Emergency Communication, where I discussed some of these same issues. Within that article, I discuss alternative communication based on the types of restrictions in place. It’s good to be familiar with your options and have a plan in case communication goes down. Check out the article above if you haven’t had a chance.

Conclusion

These types of incidents can be very hard to predict and may happen with little to no notice. However, there are places that have a higher propensity for this to occur. Being familiar with the history of the area you are traveling can be extremely valuable. A little pre-travel planning can go a long way. In addition, be familiar with emergency communication options and know how to use them.

Let me know if you’ve ever experienced this type of event where you live or during your travels.

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