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How internet outages became a tool of oppression

Earlier this month, when protests heated up in India over the government’s plans to implement a controversial law that discriminates against Muslims, the Delhi police took action. Reportedly at the direction of the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, the police issued a directive on 16 December ordering three mobile operators to discontinue voice, SMS, and data services in parts of the city. According to the India Times, the operators complied, resulting in a lack of services for a four-hour period.

Elsewhere in India, as the government declared an end to 70 years of autonomy in the Kashmir region in August 2019, it simultaneously shut off access to the internet for most Kashmiris. That outage continues and internet freedom group Access Now considers it to be the longest denial of access by a democratic state since the introduction of the web.

Outages as a political tool

Internet outages and restrictions are increasingly being used by governments to control public opinion and quell unrest. The list of countries where the government has restricted internet access or content (WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook are frequent targets) this year alone includes Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Venezuela and at least ten African countries.

Shutdowns are on the increase

AccessNow estimates that between 2017 and 2018, the number of documented shutdowns nearly doubled from 106 to 196. Shutdowns occurred in 26 countries; however, India was far and away the biggest culprit, accounting for 134 shutdowns, or nearly 70 per cent of the total.

Aside from all of the moral and ethical challenges presented by these state-ordered outages, for network operators, they represent a real customer service challenge. Network downtime is a key factor in customer satisfaction; or more accurately, network outages are a key factor in customer dissatisfaction.

Sanctions need to be severe to be effective

However, operators generally have no choice but to comply with state orders, especially mobile operators that depend on government licenses to obtain the spectrum necessary to provide service.

Efforts to combat this disturbing trend have thus far been ineffective. The UN General Assembly and the GSM Association, among other groups, have attempted to shed light on the practice.

However, the current global political landscape, in which politicians with authoritarian tendencies appear to be consolidating power, means these initiatives are unlikely to change the current trend, unless they are accompanied by sanctions or penalties big enough to convince political leaders to change their ways.

NS Tech and GlobalData are part of the same group