*Internet Shutdowns During Political Unrest Are Becoming Normal – And It
Should Worry Us*
*Guest post by Anita Gohdes <http://www.anitagohdes.net/>.*
*President Ali Bongo of Gabon at the World Economic Forum on Africa, May 5,
2011. Photo via World Economic Forum
Last night, for the eleventh night in a row, Internet access was shut down
in Gabon. Starting again at 7pm, network accessibility almost came to a
halt. These “Internet curfews
<https://twitter.com/akamai_soti/status/773594880656478212>” come in the
aftermath of highly contested and controversial national elections. Just
over a week ago, Gabon’s incumbent president, Ali Bongo, declared himself
of the elections by a narrow margin with 49.8 percent of all votes. His
opponent, Jean Ping, who allegedly lost with 48.2 percent of votes has
demanded a recount, and the international community
backed him up <http://www.elysee.fr/communiques-de-presse/article/gabon/>.
Amidst the uncertainty surrounding the election results, protesters took to
the streets and set fire to a parliamentary house
while the opposition reported attacks against their premises by incumbent
forces. Throughout the post-election tensions, the government has resorted
to extreme digital censorship. Prior to the nightly Internet curfews,
connections were cut for more than five days across the country while
protesters took to the streets across Libreville, and according to Reuters
thousands were arrested under the charges of rioting.
[image: Description: gabon_internetcurfew]
Gabon is only the latest in a series of countries that have taken to
shutting down the Internet during heightened political unrest within their
borders. The scenes are reminiscent of Internet shutdowns in the aftermath
of Iran’s elections in 2009, or Egypt’s blackout during the 2011 Tahir
protests. Recent shutdowns occurred in Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi
Congo <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36024501>, and Sudan
and the non-profit organization Access Now
<https://www.accessnow.org/keepiton/> documented a total of 15 Internet
shutdowns in 2015, and 20 shutdowns in the first six months of 2016 alone.
So while some countries – such as China
– try to only censor what they see as dangerous content, many still rely on
brute force methods of cutting all access.
[image: Description: picture1]
While the cutting of communication channels can, in and of itself, be seen
as an alarming impediment on the freedom of expression
the fact that these shutdowns are so frequently linked to increases in
violent repression is extremely worrisome and beckons more attention from
the international community than is currently the case. While governments
oftentimes justify the outages under the pretense of preventing violence
research suggests the opposite.
* Internet Shutdowns Often Go Hand In Hand With State Violence*
on the Syrian conflict suggests that national level Internet outages go
hand in hand with increases in government violence against civilians. But
even in less militarized contexts this pattern can be found. Last month
during protests in Ethiopia, the government shut down
Internet access and reportedly killed almost a hundred protesters
In September 2013, Internet access was cut in Sudan
<http://research.dyn.com/2013/09/internet-blackout-sudan/> amidst violent
crackdowns against anti-government protesters
Internet shutdowns can be understood as both an act of desperation on the
side of governments doing their best to suppress unrest, and a sign of
clear willingness to resort to even extreme measures in order to regain
research <https://www.polity.co.uk/book.asp?ref=9780745695754> has
discussed the opportunities social media platforms
for disenfranchised citizens to mobilize against repressive governments. It
is thus unsurprising that when nowadays people take to the streets, fearful
governments will do their best to clamp down on those digital channels
associated with uprisings all over the world.
*Shutdowns Are Costly *
Nonetheless, shutting down the Internet doesn’t come without costs:
countless businesses are dependent on digital communication and a web
presence in order to go about their day-to-day business. Every day of
disrupted services stifles economic activity and is likely to displease the
oftentimes highly connected and influential elites.
But even outside of the professional sphere, the Internet is a crucial way
for many people to communicate with friends and family and access their
favorite channels of entertainment. Blocking these channels has the
potential to alert parts of the population that were previously unaware or
unbothered by political controversies or unrest, thus inadvertently
increasing the number of disgruntled citizens.
Governments faced with political unrest thus face a trade-off: shut down
the internet in the hope of stifling organized dissent, but risk angering
more citizens while also harming the economy; or watch anger and protest
spread across the Internet while still hoping to regain control.
The fact that the authorities in Gabon have limited the shutdowns to the
evenings and nights speaks to their simultaneous fear of increasing unrest
and their need to provide digital infrastructure to keep their citizens
content. The fact that they are continuously doing it amidst unrest and
uncertainty suggests the incumbent administration is going to continue its
course of violent repression to maintain power.
*Anita Gohdes is an Assistant Professor at the University of Zurich.*
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