Internet shutdowns in particular have been one strategy that we’ve seen repeatedly over the past year.
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.”
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?
Partial shutdowns are happening with greater frequency in countries in Asia and East & Central Africa.
A Top10VPN report found 21 countries across four continents participating in significant internet shutdowns in 2020, mostly in response to civil unrest surrounding elections. The official justification for the shutdowns were frequently to uphold national security, maintain public safety, and prevent “fake news” from spreading.
Internet shutdowns are only increasing in frequency as a form of internet control during such political moments. The first few weeks of 2021 have already seen internet shutdowns take place in India, Myanmar, and Uganda during elections and anti-coup protests, and it is likely we’ll be seeing similar shutdowns for the dozens of countries holding general elections this year.
What are the consequences of internet shutdowns?
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.)
Internet lockdowns also 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.
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
Start by using HTTPS Everywhere (which is also integrated into ExpressVPN’s browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox, and Edge) to secure your browsing on a particular site. 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.
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.
FAQ: About internet shutdowns
Can the world internet be shut down?
In short: No, the world internet cannot be shut down. The internet is a global network of smaller networks and computers. It is not uncommon for sections of the internet to be censored in specific countries or institutions. This practice threatens to take us closer to a phenomenon called ‘splinternet,” in which each country starts to have its own version of the internet. However, it would be next to impossible to shut down the internet on a global scale.
Who controls the world’s internet?
As a globally distributed and decentralized network, the internet is not under the control of a single governing body, nor is it centrally regulated. And this is how the internet was originally envisioned—providing information freely to all, with no further agenda. However, the reality of the internet is more complex, with governments and Big Tech companies having outsized roles in shaping the internet and how we experience it.
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