Governments Shut Down the Internet to Stifle Critics. Citizens Pay the Price.

HARARE, Zimbabwe — When Zimbabwe turned off the web throughout a latest crackdown, Obert Masaraure, a outstanding authorities critic, had no method of realizing when it was protected to emerge from hiding.

He waited at some point, then one other. On the third day he broke cowl, hoping wave of arrests had come to an finish.

He was seized at house by troopers 12 hours later.

“If I had been connected,” Mr. Masaraure stated, “maybe I would have got information that it wasn’t safe to be out there.”

Internet shutdowns have change into considered one of the defining instruments of presidency repression in the 21st century — not simply in Zimbabwe, however in a rising variety of international locations, primarily in Asia and Africa, which might be searching for to quash dissent.

The shutdowns do greater than stunt the democratic course of. They can batter entire economies and particular person companies, in addition to drastically disrupt the each day lifetime of extraordinary residents, turning the seek for cellular service right into a recreation of cat and mouse with the police and driving individuals throughout borders simply to ship emails for work.

The Indian authorities employs the follow extra continuously than some other, most recently in Kashmir, but it is not alone: In 2018, there were at least 196 shutdowns in 25 countries, up from 75 in 24 countries in 2016, according to research by Access Now, an independent watchdog group that campaigns for internet rights. In the first half of this year alone, there were 114 shutdowns in 23 countries.

In all, more than a quarter of the world’s nations have used the tactic at one point or another over the past four years.

Typically used during times of civil unrest or political instability, a shutdown allows officials to stifle the flow of information about government wrongdoing or to stop communication among activists, usually by ordering service providers to cut or slow their customers’ internet access.

While authoritarian countries like China and Iran have long blocked some international websites that they consider subversive, like Facebook, an internet shutdown is usually a temporary measure, often wielded by governments that have historically had a less systematic approach to internet censorship.

“People always had this simplistic view that technology could only be used in one way — that it was this great tool for democracy,” said Kuda Hove, a digital rights researcher at the Media Institute of Southern Africa. But after the emergence of the shutdown, he said, “it dawned on them that the government could use technology against the people.”

Governments sometimes justify their actions as an attempt to stop the spread of “fake news” or hate speech, or to keep students from cheating during exams. But these explanations often mask the real motivation, said Berhan Taye, who leads research into internet shutdowns at Access Now.

“Internet throttling and internet shutdowns are an extension of traditional forms of censorship,” Ms. Taye said. “This is not a unique phenomenon — it’s an extension of what’s happening in countries where civil space is already shrinking.”

The economy often pays the price, research suggests. In countries with a medium level of internet penetration — that is, where 49 percent to 79 percent of the population has internet access — a shutdown might dent daily economic activity by $6.6 million per 10 million people, according to analysis by Deloitte, an international accounting firm.

“Due to a network shutdown, the economy shuts down,” said Mr. Fore. “The flow of everything slows.”

In some countries, that has even included the supply of crucial medicines and the deployment of medical professionals.

In Sudan, the interim government shut down the internet for a month, principally to obstruct opposition activity after the ouster of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. But it also stopped Sudanese doctors from ordering new medicine, leading to shortages of diabetes treatment, and prevented protest leaders from using WhatsApp to call for medical assistance, according to Dr. Sara Abdelgalil, who coordinates supplies in Sudan via the internet from her home overseas.

“We had a WhatsApp group in which we’d say, ‘We need a surgeon in Omdurman, we need an anesthetist in Buri,’” said Dr. Abdelgalil, the president of the British chapter of the Sudanese Doctors’ Union, which supports Sudan’s transition to civilian government. “All that became very difficult.”

In parts of the developing world, merchants derive most of their revenue by advertising their products in public WhatsApp groups, which allow sellers to send advertisements to hundreds of recipients at a time. During a shutdown, those groups turn into online ghost towns.

Patrice Binwa Naledi runs a series of such forums in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the government stopped the internet for 20 days this year, nominally to prevent rumors spreading while votes were counted from the presidential election.

Normally, advertisers using Mr. Naledi’s groups can reach about 70,000 people and make sales totaling as much as $10,000 a day, keeping Mr. Naledi’s phones constantly buzzing with new messages.

But during the shutdown, “it was like the phones had stopped working,” he said. “It was very calm — and when it’s calm, for me it’s sad.”

In eastern Congo during the shutdown, businessmen were forced to travel to Rwanda for the day to read their email. Arsène Tungali, who runs a translation business in Goma, Congo, regularly drove to the border and waited for an hour to get his papers stamped, before heading to a Rwandan restaurant to set up a temporary office for the day.

The cost of additional fuel, as well as food at the restaurant, cost him an extra $100 a week. And the whole process created untold complications.

“If the email I was expecting hasn’t arrived, I have to decide whether to go back across the border, or to wait until the person I was waiting for has got connected,” said Mr. Tungali. “But that means delaying the things I need to do back in the office.”

In the capital, Kinshasa, people gained access to the internet by secretly buying SIM cards from the Republic of Congo, a separate country just across the Congo River, at a vastly inflated price. Once they were sure the police weren’t looking, they would loiter on the riverbank until they picked up nearby mobile networks.

“It became a bit like a drug deal,” said Lemien Sakalunga, a journalist based in Kinshasa. “You’d buy a SIM, and you’d hide it immediately. The vendor would say: Hide it, hide it, hide it. Then you’d move as quickly as you could, as far as you could.”

In Zimbabwe, a growing number of people have downloaded virtual private networks, systems that allow users to circumvent some internet restrictions. But V.P.N.s are often themselves blocked by the government, and those that work are often too slow to be useful, said Mr. Hove, the digital rights researcher.

Besides, V.P.N.s might not be enough if governments adopt more sophisticated forms of internet censorship.

The Zimbabwe government already appears to be harnessing the internet to its advantage, using software to surveil opponents and sending armies of trolls against its critics, Mr. Hove said.

“The next battle in my view isn’t going to be against the government shutting down the internet — that’s maybe too obvious, and with the level of international condemnation they received, they might not do it again,” he said. “But they may step up attempts to drown democratic discourse online.”

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