How to survive an internet shutdown

3 min read

Jamie is always hungry. He also writes about digital privacy in exchange for sandwiches.

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Internet freedoms are declining.

For an eighth consecutive year, Freedom House recorded a global decrease in internet freedoms in 2018, attributing the decline to governments determined to stifle online dissent.

One strategy in particular—internet shutdowns—has been used to great effect. During elections, several countries across Africa and Asia have attempted to silence speech online, especially on social media.

With heavy-handed governments becoming more comfortable with these tactics, users are looking for ways to avoid censorship and ensure 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 quickly run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Where are these shutdowns happening, and why?

Partial shutdowns are happening with greater frequency in Asia as well as East and Central Africa.

Already in 2019, shutdowns have been reported across Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, and Gabon in response to political unrest, elections, and attempted coups.

The official reasoning behind these shutdowns has been to uphold national security, ensure public safety, and prevent “fake news” from spreading. Though they have also conveniently given the authorities the means to stop protests and control elections and the information surrounding them.

With more elections happening this year, from Nigeria to India, it’s highly likely more internet shutdowns are on the way.

What are the consequences of internet shutdowns?

By diminishing the freedoms of internet users, governments are stifling their countries’ growth.

According to the Brookings Institution, shutdowns in a 12-month span of 2015 and 2016 cost economies $2.4 billion, with India racking up $968 million of that total. (The problem is so pervasive in India, there’s now a website devoted to tracking shutdowns.)

These lockdowns also infringe on the fundamental right to internet access, which the UN Human Rights Council adopted by resolution in 2016. By closing down the web, countries risk inflaming public resentment toward their governments, which could, in turn, encourage those governments to tighten their grip on internet access, sending countries spiraling into digital authoritarian rule. Some countries are already there.

What can you do to survive an internet shutdown?

With the increasing frequency of internet blackouts around the world, users are forced to find ways to circumvent them. Though there’s not much you can do when the internet is cut off completely, here are a few ways to remain online if you get caught in a partial internet shutdown.

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 good VPN that will protect you from detection

With a VPN you can secure your access to the internet in its freest and most open 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 ExpressVPN integrated into our Chrome extension) 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.

You’ll also want to start using more secure communications if you haven’t already, like Signal.

After following these three steps, you’ll be able to survive in any country with a partial 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.

Jamie writes about current issues concerning digital privacy and security and is known to interview leading figures in tech. He also keeps an eye on changes in government censorship and surveillance.