The Migration of Political Internet Shutdowns

November 28, 2017 David Belson

In January 2011, what was arguably the first significant disconnection of an entire country from the Internet took place when routes to Egyptian networks disappeared from the Internet’s global routing table, leaving no valid paths by which the rest of the world could exchange Internet traffic with Egypt’s service providers. It was followed in short order by nationwide disruptions in Bahrain, Libya, and Syria. These outages took place during what became known as the Arab Spring, highlighting the role that the Internet had come to play in political protest, and heralding the wider use of national Internet shutdowns as a means of control.

“How hard is it to disconnect a country from the Internet, really?”

After these events, and another significant Internet outage in Syria, this question led a blog post published in November 2012 by former Dyn Chief Scientist Jim Cowie that examined the risk of Internet disconnection for countries around the world, based on the number of Internet connections at their international border. “You can think of this, to [a] first approximation,” Cowie wrote, “as the number of phone calls (or legal writs, or infrastructure attacks) that would have to be performed in order to decouple the domestic Internet from the global Internet.”

Defining Internet Disconnection Risk

Based on our aggregated view of the global Internet routing table at the time, we identified the set of border providers in each country: domestic network providers (autonomous systems, in BGP parlance) who have direct connections, visible in routing, to international (foreign) providers. From that data set, four tiers were defined to classify a country’s risk of Internet disconnection. A summary of these classifications is below – additional context can be found in the original blog post:

  • If a country has only 1 or 2 service providers at its international frontier, it is classified as being at severe risk of Internet disconnection.
  • With fewer than 10 service providers at its international frontier, a country is classified as being at significant risk of Internet disconnection.
  • A country’s risk of Internet disconnection is classified as low risk with between 10 and 40 internationally-connected service providers.
  • Finally, countries with more than 40 providers at their borders are considered to be resistant to Internet disconnection.

The original blog post classified 223 countries and territories, with the largest number of them classified as being at significant risk of Internet disconnection.

A February 2014 update to the original post, entitled “Syria, Venezuela, Ukraine: Internet Under Fire” examined changes observed in the 16 months since the original post, highlighting both increases and decreases in Internet disconnection risk level across a number of countries. The post noted the continued fragility of Internet connectivity in Syria, owing in part to its classification of being at severe risk of Internet disconnection, as well as mentioning the lack of nationwide Internet disruptions in Venezuela despite periodic slowdowns and regional access disruptions.

It has been five years since the original blog post, and over three and a half years since the followup post, so we thought that it would be interesting to take a new look at Internet resiliency around the world. Has connection diversity increased, and does that lead to a potential decrease in vulnerability to Internet shutdown?

However, as the 2014 blog post notes, “We acknowledge the limitations of such a simple model in predicting complex events such as Internet shutdowns. Many factors can contribute to making countries more fragile than they appear at the surface (for example, shared physical infrastructure under the control of a central authority, or the physical limitations of a few shared fiber optic connections to distant countries).” For instance, at the time of the original (2012) post, New Zealand relied primarily on the Southern Cross submarine cable connection to Australia for international Internet connectivity, despite our data showing dozens of border network providers. And while Iraq has gained numerous border relationships since 2012, most of the country (except for Kurdistan in the north) relies on a national fiber backbone which the Iraqi government has shut down dozens of times since 2014 to combat cheating on student exams, stifle protests, and disrupt ISIS communication.

In addition, it’s worth recognizing that there likely isn’t a meaningful difference in resilience in a country with 39 border providers (which would classify it as “low risk”) and 41 border providers (which would classify it as “resistant”). With these caveats in mind, an updated world map reflecting the risk of Internet disconnection as classified in our 2017 data set is presented below.

What’s Happened Since Then?

In reviewing other notable Internet shutdowns that have occurred since the 2014 post was published, a few things stood out:

However, the most interesting observation was the ‘migration’ of politically-motivated nationwide Internet disruptions. The outages that occurred during the Arab Spring time frame were largely concentrated in North Africa and the Middle East, shifting over the last several years into sub-Saharan Africa. This shift has not gone unnoticed, with online publication Quartz also highlighting the growing trend of African governments blocking the Internet to silence dissent, and the United Nations taking note as well. In addition, as these shutdowns are now a more regular occurrence, both in Africa and in other areas around the world, it is also worth looking at the financial impact that they have on affected countries.

Nearly three years ago, in January 2015, an Internet shutdown was put into place in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, after bloody clashes took place between opponents of President Joseph Kabila and police.  Banks and government agencies reportedly regained access after four days, while subscribers remained offline for three weeks. Almost two years later, in December 2016, an Internet shutdown was ordered as a means of blocking access to social media sites to prevent mobilization of those protesting against the president’s stay in office beyond the two-term limit.

DR Congo blocks Internet in Kinshasa after bloody clashes between police & protestors http://t.co/QlNqFqBl2d pic.twitter.com/9eDNUDjGSC

— InternetIntelligence (@InternetIntel) January 20, 2015

While many governments force Internet shutdowns that last for just a few hours, or across multiple days or weeks, Gabon combined both in September 2016, implementing a nightly “Internet curfew” that lasted for 23 days. The regular Internet disruptions occurred on the heels of a disputed national election that ultimately saw the incumbent president win a second term by a slim vote margin. International Internet connectivity was also reportedly restricted in the week before the election. With Internet access largely concentrated through Gabon Telecom, the country is at severe risk of Internet shutdown.

Internet curfew in Gabon lifted (23 nightly blackouts later). @PresidentABO sworn in after disputed election https://t.co/apbaY0cYd2 pic.twitter.com/5RMNqv0ufM

— InternetIntelligence (@InternetIntel) September 29, 2016

In late November 2016, Internet connectivity in Gambia was shut down ahead of a national election that saw the country’s president of more than 20 years upset by the opposition candidate. Published reports noted that the opposition party relied on Internet messaging apps to organize rallies and demonstrations. Efforts by the incumbent party to disrupt Internet connectivity were presumably intended to derail this organizing, as well as to limit potential protests depending on the outcome of the election.

Govt of Gambia orders Internet blackout ahead of national election. Service down since 20:05 UTC on 30-Nov. https://t.co/N3HqI1g8D8 pic.twitter.com/QWUUj1qneq

— InternetIntelligence (@InternetIntel) December 1, 2016

In Cameroon, Internet connectivity was blocked in English-speaking parts of the country starting in January 2017, reportedly affecting about 20 percent of the population. The government reportedly suspended Internet service for users in the Southwest and Northwest provinces after a series of protests that resulted in violence and the arrest of community leaders. Ten months later, Internet access remains unstable in Cameroon, highlighted by the #BringBackOurInternet hashtag on Twitter.

Govt-directed blackout in English-speaking regions of Cameroon began 17-Jan. https://t.co/ZlLila4mWp @africatechie @EricAcha1 pic.twitter.com/HWhSKtNCMk

— InternetIntelligence (@InternetIntel) February 13, 2017

In Togo, throughout the fall of 2017, protesters have been calling for the resignation of President Faure Gnassingbe, who has been in power since his father died in 2005. In response, the country’s government has limited Internet access in an effort to prevent demonstrators from organizing on social media, and has also blocked text messaging. Published reports indicate that the mobile messaging app WhatsApp was a particular target, although some users resorted to VPNs to maintain access to the tool. Looking at the graph below, the Internet restrictions have not generally been implemented through broad manipulation or removal of routes — while some instability is evident, there have not been widespread outages, as have been seen in the past in countries such as Syria.

#Togo downs internet service amid huge anti-government protests. https://t.co/be4Ac0E8ez https://t.co/PqI3bHK8Fl pic.twitter.com/IDD8J34ws5

— InternetIntelligence (@InternetIntel) September 6, 2017

Most recently, the government of Equatorial Guinea widely blocked access to the Internet ahead of a nationwide election that was widely expected to keep the ruling party in power. Local service providers GuineaNet and IPXEG, among others, were taken completely offline. This disruption followed blocking access to opposition Web sites, which has been going on since  2013, as well blocking access to Facebook, which was put into place when the electoral campaign started on October 27.

Government in #EquatorialGuinea ordered internet blackout ahead of yesterday’s election. GuineaNet and IPXEG among local ISPs that went offline. https://t.co/rePRhfthLR Troubling trend of internet shutdowns around African elections continues unabated. pic.twitter.com/Hwp30RsOhy

— InternetIntelligence (@InternetIntel) November 13, 2017

“Swift and Dramatic” Economic Damage

In 2011, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimated that the economic impact of Egypt’s five-day national Internet shutdown “incurred direct costs of at minimum USD 90 million.” They estimated that lost revenues due to blocked telecommunications and Internet services accounted for approximately USD 18 million per day. However, the OECD also noted that “this amount does not include the secondary economic impacts which resulted from a loss of business in other sectors affected by the shutdown of communication services e.g. e-commerce, tourism and call centres.”

The true cost to a country of a nationwide Internet shutdown can be significant. An October 2016 study produced by Deloitte reached the following conclusions:

“The impacts of a temporary shutdown of the Internet grow larger as a country develops and as a more mature online ecosystem emerges. It is estimated that for a highly Internet connected country, the per day impact of a temporary shutdown of the Internet and all of its services would be on average $23.6 million per 10 million population. With lower levels of Internet access, the average estimated GDP impacts amount to $6.6 million and to $0.6 million per 10 million population for medium and low Internet connectivity economies, respectively.”

The study also noted that if Internet disruptions become more frequent and longer-term in nature, these impacts are likely to be magnified.

The Brookings Institute also published a report in October 2016 that looked at the cost of Internet shutdowns over the previous year. The report’s headline claim that “Internet shutdowns cost countries $2.4 billion last year” was cited in publications including Techcrunch and an Internet Society Policy Brief. However, within the report, so-called Internet shutdowns are broken down into a number of categories. By their count, 36 instances of “national Internet” shutdowns led to just under 20 days of aggregate downtime, responsible for almost USD 295 million of financial impact. In contrast, blocking access to apps at a nationwide level accounted for nearly half of the claimed financial impact.

The costs of a nationwide Internet shutdown to a country’s economy are clearly very real. In an October 2016 article in The Atlantic on this topic, my colleague Doug Madory noted “The hope is that a government would be less likely to order an Internet blackout if it knew the negative impacts of such a decision in terms of hard dollar figures.” We can hope that in the future, national governments will recognize that the money that these nationwide outages would cost them would be better redirected into improving Internet connectivity for citizens and businesses across their countries.

Conclusion

In 2012, we published the “Could It Happen In Your Country?” analysis in the aftermath of the Internet disruptions of the Arab Spring. Since then, we have observed and documented the trend of national Internet blackouts as they have migrated, most recently, to Africa.

While the studies by Deloitte and Brookings have pointed out the severe negative economic consequences of these blackouts, NGOs like AccessNow and Internet Sans Frontières do advocacy work by drawing attention to the adverse impacts on human rights when governments decide to cut communications lines. The role we play, and have played for many years, is to inform the Internet blackout discussion with expert technical analysis.

We can only hope that our combined efforts help to reduce the frequency of future government-directed Internet disruptions. Given the number of blackouts we’ve observed in recent months, help can’t come fast enough.

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