The Internet is one of the few places where information can spread freely, which might explain why authoritarian governments are blocking it more often. We look at some of the countries that have suffered Internet blackouts this year.
This article was updated on July 10, 2019, to reflect recent events in Sudan.
It is still impossible for anyone to control what content goes on the Internet, but more and more governments have shown they have some control over who can access that content and when. An Internet shutdown happens when a national government orders the local Internet service providers (ISP), generally the local telecommunications company (and perhaps other companies), to restrict its citizens access to certain websites or the entire Internet.
Governments can order Internet shutdowns when there are only one or two ISPs in a country — or easier still, when the state itself is the primary Internet service provider. To block a single site, the ISPs can block that site’s IP address from all its users. It could also delete that site from its DNS servers so that when people try to connect with it, they will be told that that site does not exist. While these technical blocks of specific sites do not have as significant an impact on the country’s society or economy, they are also not as effective. People can generally use a VPN service to access restricted sites during these partial Internet shutdowns.
Complete Internet blackouts are much more severe. In this case, the ISP essentially disconnects its servers from the rest of the Internet and that country disappears from the web. A total shutdown effectively eliminates the Internet in a country, and there is little anyone can do except wait for the government to order the ISPs to reconnect its servers.
Partial and complete shutdowns have become commonplace in some parts of the world. According to Access Now, a nonprofit that advocates for greater Internet access, the number of Internet shutdowns increased from 75 in 2016 to 188 last year.
The information we’ve listed below about Internet shutdowns, unless otherwise noted, came from NetBlocks.org, a civil society organization that monitors Internet blackouts globally.
Venezuela has been suffering intermittent Internet shutdowns for years. Starting in 2014, the regime began blocking specific news sites, social media, and blogs that were critical of President Nicolas Maduro. Since then, state censorship of the Internet has only increased. Now, Twitter, Facebook, Periscope, and other social media services are regularly blacked out across the nation anytime the opposition to the regime makes an announcement or holds a press conference.
Sudan began 2019 in the middle of a 68-day blackout of all social media that did not end until Feb. 26. The government shut down social media services (including Twitter, Periscope, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Telegram) again on April 7. These blocks were in response to demonstrations against Sudan’s longtime president, Omar al-Bashir.
More recently, the Sudanese military deposed al-Bashir and took over. On June 3, they shut down access to the Internet entirely to limit reporting on killings that took place at a peaceful sit-in protest in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. After 36 days of implementing an Internet blackout, the Sudanese government began to restore Internet access on July 9.
On May 22, the day after the results of the 2019 Indonesian presidential election were announced, the Indonesian government blocked the backend servers of Facebook and WhatsApp. They also blocked access to specific features of some social media services, like preventing Twitter users from uploading photographs and videos. These blocks remained in place until May 25.
Following a deadly terrorist attack on April 21, the government of Sri Lanka cut off access to various social media platforms, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, Viber, Snapchat, and Facebook Messenger. They also restricted VPN use. This first block lasted for nine days. However, only days after the first block ended, on May 5, the government briefly shut down social media again. A third block of social media was put in place on May 14, although VPNs could be used to access the blocked services. This last block lasted roughly three days.
There have already been 55 reported incidents of Internet blackouts across the different regions of India in 2019. Because of India’s massive size and population, shutting down the Internet nationwide would be very complicated and costly. It is much easier to isolate and prevent access to social media platforms or the entire Internet region by region. The region that has suffered the most Internet shutdowns is Jammu and Kashmir, which accounts for 41 of India’s 55 Internet shutdowns. Jammu and Kashmir’s latest Internet block was on June 19, when the government shut down mobile Internet services as a precautionary measure on the anniversary of the death of a Kashmiri resistance leader. InternetShutdowns.in provided these statistics.
On Jan. 15, 16, and 18, the Zimbabwean government ordered its telecom operators to completely shut down access to the Internet. Protests had been underway after the government doubled the price of gasoline in the country and critics allege the government blocked the Internet to prevent people from circulating images of police brutality in their response to these protests.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo
The Democratic Republic of the Congo also began 2019 amid a complete Internet shutdown that commenced on Dec. 31, 2018, and lasted 20 days. While the Internet blocks started as a patchwork across the different regions of Congo, it eventually evolved into an Internet blackout that encompassed all the major Congolese population centers. The Congolese government claimed it was necessary to block the Internet to avoid rampant speculation on the results of the recent presidential election. (The election results were announced Jan. 6.)
During an attempted coup by military officers, the Gabonese government completely shut down the Internet for 28 hours, from Jan. 7 to Jan. 8. Once the coup attempt had been put down, Internet service was restored.
Benin held parliamentary elections on April 28 this year. The morning of the elections, the government ordered the local ISPs to block social media. Later in the day, the government escalated to a full Internet shutdown for the whole nation for roughly 15 hours. In some places, even the electricity was intentionally cut. Internet connections were then throttled and disrupted on May 1.
On May 21, the day of the presidential elections, the Malawian government shut down the Internet for several hours in the evening while votes were being counted and initial results announced. There was another brief Internet shutdown on May 22. The election workers relied on the Internet to conduct their work, and the blackouts impacted the electoral commission’s backup network.
The citizens of Kazakhstan have long suffered Internet censorship. In 2019, there are at least two documented incidents of local ISPs restricting Internet access.
On May 9, which is known as Victory Day in Kazakhstan and commemorates the WWII victory of the Soviet Union, the government blocked Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Telegram, and several independent news and petition sites in response to calls for protests against the president. The blocks remained in place for roughly 13 hours.
Later, on June 9, the day of presidential elections, the government blocked several streaming services before shutting down the entire Internet across the country. This Internet blackout lasted roughly one hour and coincided with the arrest of journalists and demonstrators in several cities across Kazakhstan. On June 11, the government briefly restricted access to WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram.
Similar to its neighbor Kazakhstan, the government Uzbekistan has long censored the Internet. In one notable case from 2014, the regime shut down the Internet and SMS messaging within the country during a national college entrance exam. On May 10, the Uzbek government stopped blocking access to over a dozen previously censored websites. Uzbek citizens can now access the websites of international NGOs, like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders, as well as news sites, like Deutsche-Welle, Voice of America, Fergana, and EurasiaNet.
Since the al-Sisi regime took power in 2017, it has worked to block or shut down websites that are critical of the government. On April 9 this year, the Egyptian government restricted access to voiceonline.net, an opposition campaign petition website, after it reached 60,000 signatures to protest proposed changes to the Egyptian constitution. A week later, over 34,000 different websites were suffering intermittent partial or complete blocks. Fortunately, citizens were able to use VPNs to access these sites.
Chad holds the record for the longest complete social media blackout, surpassing one year. The blackout began on March 28, 2018, after protesters objected to a constitutional change that would allow the president to remain in power until 2033. For this entire time, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and other social media sites have been completely inaccessible to anyone not using a VPN service.
Algeria has a checkered past of maintaining Internet freedom. They copied Uzbekistan’s move of shutting down the entire Internet to prevent cheating during a national exam last year and this year. On June 16 and 17, from the morning until early afternoon (while the exams were being taken) no one could access the social media sites of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Tinder. Messaging apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, Skype, Viber, and Line were also blocked.
Earlier this year, on Feb. 22, the Algerian government implemented regional blocks as protestors took to the streets to call for the Algerian president to step down. These regional blocks continued intermittently until March 2. The Internet blackouts were mostly centered on cities that are traditionally considered to be opposition party strongholds.
Ethiopia also resorted to shutting down its Internet to combat cheating on exams on June 11. The shutdown lasted nearly a week, and even after Internet access came back, the messaging app Telegram remained blocked. The government shut down the Internet entirely again on the evening of June 22 in response to an attempted coup in the Amhara region of the country.
The block was lifted the morning of June 27 after roughly 100 hours.
Mauritania held presidential elections on June 22. This election was being hailed as a return to democracy after Mauritania suffered a coup in 2008. While the candidate representing the current party in power won the election by a comfortable margin, both opposition candidates allege that there were numerous voting irregularities. As protests began, the local ISPs put a complete Internet shutdown in place on the evening of June 25. Internet access was partially restored on the evening of July 3, but several regions of the country are still enduring a complete Internet shutdown.
Turkey’s slide into Internet censorship has been abrupt. Starting on April 29, 2017, the Turkish government began blocking Wikipedia. That ban is still in place over two years later. On March 16, 2018, the Turkish government began blocking Proton Mail along with a host of VPN services, a block that is also still in place. Certain social media services, like Periscope, are also disabled from time to time. The site Turkey Blocks does a great job tracking Internet shutdowns in Turkey in real time.
How to unblock the Internet with a VPN
Except for an odd penchant for shutting down the Internet to prevent cheating on national exams, most Internet shutdowns can be attributed to authoritarian or entrenched governments that are either conducting elections or dealing with protesters. These governments know that the spread of information on the Internet can be a powerful democratic tool. By completely shutting down the Internet, they are hampering economic and political activity in their country to hold onto power. However, the prohibitive costs to the economy generally guarantee that complete Internet shutdowns are relatively short.
At Proton VPN, we believe everyone has the right to freedom of speech, which is why we provide a free VPN service that has no ads, no speed or data limits, and doesn’t track you. When governments selectively block access to social media or other websites (but not the entire Internet), a VPN can let you access these services by establishing a connection with a VPN server in a different country. By using a VPN, you can circumvent the block your local Internet service provider has put in place.
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