Why Internet Shutdowns Are a Growing Problem

Governments are cracking down

Key Takeaways

  • A new report says that governments are blocking access to parts of the internet in moves that impinge on free speech. 
  • There were 213 internet shutdowns in 2019 alone, although the number dropped to 155 in 2020 during the pandemic.
  • However, free speech is getting harder to repress due to the internet, one expert says.
Computer monitor and keyboard, chains wrapped around keyboard.

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Governments across the world are increasingly turning to internet shutdowns to control information. 

A new study finds that of the nearly 850 shutdowns that occurred over the last decade, 768 have happened since 2016. India’s government was the top offender when it came to shutdowns, with 109 instances last year. Shutdowns happen most often around elections and civil unrest. 

"When Internet access is limited or blocked, it not only affects the daily activities of citizens, but also impedes their rights to freedom of expression and opinion, as well as the right to peaceful assembly," Kenneth Olmstead, a senior advisor to the Internet Society, a nonprofit that advocates for open access to the internet, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Shutting Down Information

According to the report by Google and the digital rights nonprofit Access Now, users are losing access to parts of the internet with increasing frequency. There were 213 shutdowns in 2019 alone, although the number dropped to 155 in 2020 during the pandemic. During the first half of 2021, there were 50 shutdowns in 21 countries. 

"Since we began tracking government-initiated internet shutdowns, their use has proliferated at a truly alarming pace," censorship expert Felicia Anthonio said in the report. "As governments across the globe learn this authoritarian tactic from each other, it has moved from the fringes to become a common method many authorities use to stifle opposition, quash free speech and muzzle expression."

The report said that the first large-scale internet shutdown occurred in Egypt in 2011 as a response to government protests. About 93% of Egyptian networks were blocked for five days. 

Internet shutdowns also have been used around the world to "prevent opposition candidates from connecting with voters to build support, restrict the ability of citizens to organize, and undermine the efforts of election observers to ensure the integrity of the vote," the report said. 

Governments often use internet shutdowns to control users during everything from national school and university exams to elections and civil unrest, Olmstead said. When Internet access is limited or blocked, it can affect their rights to freedom of expression and opinion and peaceful assembly, he added. 

Shutdowns and limitations also impact the ability of citizens to get accurate information.

"Shutdowns and limitations also impact the ability of citizens to get accurate information from government sources in times of unrest or emergency," Olmstead said. "It also becomes harder for citizens to contact family members and friends in other parts of a particular country—or in other countries."

The shutdowns have an economic impact, as well. For example, a social media ban in Nigeria has cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars and counting, according to the firm Top10VPN.

The repercussions of Internet shutdowns are far-reaching, Olmstead said. Not only do they limit people's ability to communicate and access information, but they also can hurt a country or region's growth and development. 

"Shutdowns mean less economic activity, which translates into reduced profits for local businesses and lower tax revenues," he said. "The economic uncertainty that shutdowns create is cumulative, as they deter companies from investing in a country and could drive existing customers away from national service providers."

Someone using a smartphone outdoors in a city setting with a grid overlaying the image.

Nazar Abbas Photography / Getty Images

But Speech Is Getting Freer

Despite the increasing frequency of internet shutdowns, free speech is getting harder to repress, Andrew Selepak, a social media professor at the University of Florida, told Lifewire in an email interview.  

"It is easy for a despot or authoritarian government to shut down a newspaper, or radio or television station because there is a physical location that can be found, shutdown, taken over, or even destroyed," he said. "But with a smartphone, anyone anywhere can have their voice heard."

The Internet and social media do not have a physical location that a depot or authoritarian government can take over or shut down, Selepak pointed out. 

"They cannot just shut down Twitter or Instagram," he said. "They cannot take over just Facebook or YouTube. They cannot even take over the Internet. Despots and authoritarian governments cannot control what is shared or consumed from the Internet, and rather than try, they shut down the Internet completely."

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