How to survive an internet shutdown

Digital freedomTips & tricks
4 mins
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Internet freedoms have been declining for a decade now, according to reports by Freedom House.

Internet shutdowns in particular have been one strategy that we’ve seen frequently in recent years.

With countries becoming more comfortable blocking internet access, users are looking for ways to avoid censorship and to ensure continued access to a free and open internet.

What is an internet shutdown?

According to AccessNow:

“An internet shutdown happens when someone—usually a government—intentionally disrupts the internet or mobile apps to control what people say or do.”

Internet shutdowns can either be total, where all access is blocked, or partial, where only certain websites or apps (like Twitter, Google, and Facebook) are inaccessible.

Total shutdowns are rarer, because the economic cost of keeping people from doing business on the internet could run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Where are these shutdowns happening, and why?

Access Now documents internet shutdowns, and its latest data, from January to May 2023, showed shutdowns in 21 countries, including India, Myanmar, Iran, Ukraine, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Russia.

Shutdowns tend to happen during armed conflict, moments of intensive protest or dissent, and elections. The reasons for shutdowns surround government efforts to control the flow of information, in order to disseminate only the narrative that they want to tell.

What are the consequences of internet shutdowns?

Internet lockdowns infringe on the fundamental right to internet access, which the UN Human Rights Council Resolution adopted in 2016. By blocking the web, countries risk increasing resentment towards the government, which could, in turn, encourage the government to further tighten its grip over internet access, sending countries spiraling into digital authoritarian rule. Some countries are already there.

By diminishing internet freedoms, governments are stifling economic growth. With business and the internet tightly intertwined, disruption to internet access means a disruption to the country’s economy. According to research done by the Brookings Institution, shutdowns between 2015 and 2016 cost 2.4 billion USD in total, with India accounting for 968 million USD of that total. (You can check where shutdowns are currently happening in India here.)

How to survive a partial internet shutdown

With the increasing frequency of internet blackouts around the world, users are forced to find ways to circumvent them. Here are a few ways to remain online if you get caught in a situation where your internet access is greatly restricted (such as with widespread censorship)—but still existent.

1. Use circumvention tools like Tor

Tor is a free and open-source software that will protect you from people who may want to spy on your browsing habits. When it comes to achieving anonymity on the internet, it is virtually unbeatable.

2. Get a VPN

With a good VPN you can secure your access to the internet in its freest and most unrestricted form.

Using Tor over VPN will increase your privacy further. Simply connect to your VPN, then open the Tor Browser.

3. Stock up on tools and apps that protect your privacy and security

Make sure you’re using a browser that puts your privacy first; Tor is our firmly recommended favorite, but Mozilla’s Firefox also works well. Whatever browser you’re using, set it to connect you to the HTTPS version of a site whenever it’s available.

You’ll also want to start using more secure communications if you haven’t already, such as by messaging with Signal.

After following these three steps, you’ll be able to survive in most countries implementing an internet shutdown. Just make sure to exercise caution when using these tools, as you may be living in a country where such use could be penalized.

How to survive a total internet shutdown

If you fear that you’ll lose online access altogether, study these tips and download the relevant services before you lose internet. Print out various instructions and save important files offline.

1. Establish a smartphone ad hoc network

Gather several people together and use all available smartphones to create a localized wireless ad hoc network that relies on Bluetooth. This works by establishing a peer-to-peer network that can be used to swap valuable information. Apps like Bridgefy are great for this as they focus entirely on providing a framework for offline messaging.

2. Establish a sneakernet—or sneaker network

Sneakernet is essentially an offline form of the internet that runs on human movement. The name denotes the fact that the delivery of information relies on humans to deliver information through physical devices like USB sticks and external hard drives.

3. Hoard all the data that you can, when you can

Data hoarding—also known as digital hoarding—is the collection of excessive amounts of data. If you feel that a period of political instability looms on the horizon, it may be time to back up as much of the internet as you can. This can include important information such as historical documents, operation manuals, operating systems, cultural media, and anything that thwarts oppression or censorship.

Read next:  From one internet to multiple webs: Why is the internet fragmenting?

FAQ: About internet shutdowns

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Ceinwen focused on digital privacy, censorship, and surveillance, and has interviewed leading figures in tech.