By Hanna Duggal for Al Jazeera
Over the past year, billions of people all over the world have relied heavily on Internet connectivity to keep in touch with family and friends, learn online, work from home and get vital information about the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet over the course of 2020, 29 countries intentionally shut down or slowed their internet communications at least 155 times, according to a new report published by Access Now, a non-profit digital rights group.
“We are extremely concerned how government authorities are using internet shutdowns as a systemised tool to repress democratic expression, even in the middle of a global pandemic,” Raman Jit Singh Chima, senior international counsel and Asia Pacific policy director at Access Now said.
Most shutdowns: India
Authorities in India shut down the internet 109 times over the course of 2020, mostly in Indian-administered Kashmir, which accounted for almost 90 percent of all internet shutdowns in India last year.
From January 2020 till February of this year, the internet in Indian-administered Kashmir was throttled to 2G, making life very difficult for many students in the state who had been moved to remote learning as a result of COVID-19.
“We weren’t able to attend our online classes regularly,” said Bazillah Ayoub, 24, a student at the Model Institute of Engineering and Technology in Jammu.
“We had a lot of issues – we were asked to submit our assignments which were sometimes 15MB or above that, which got uploaded after one or two hours. Due to that, we all have backlogs in our subjects because we have not submitted our assignments on time,” Ayoub told Al Jazeera.
Internet shutdowns in Indian-administered Kashmir are a regular occurrence, with authorities citing precautionary measures as the main justification.
“Shutdowns are used to suppress voices of dissent,” said youth activist Kanwal Singh, 30. “We have been a conflict state for the last 70 years.”
People in Indian-administered Kashmir experienced one of the longest internet shutdowns in the world with a complete blackout from August 2019 to January 2020, after which the throttled speed of 2G was allowed. The authorities recently restored 4G services in Indian-administered Kashmir after 18 months.
Last year, India’s Supreme Court ordered a review into Kashmir’s internet shutdowns, stating that they were unconstitutional and violated India’s telecoms rules.
“Any government or authority is not doing charity by restoring the 4G services,” said Singh. “When the government restored 4G services everyone started celebrating, but the point is this is not charity. This is our right and everyone’s right because this is guaranteed by the Indian constitution.”
Elsewhere in Asia
In addition to India, the governments of Myanmar, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam also blocked access to the internet in 2020.
Myanmar has imposed the longest shutdown recorded to date, which continued from 2019 through 2020 and up to early February this year in Rakhine and Chin states.
As mass protests continue in the country, internet services remain precarious, despite full internet access being restored by authorities in Rakhine and Chin after a military coup last month.
In Bangladesh, Rohingya refugee camps were cut off from high-speed internet for 415 days. The Rohingya Students Network said people in camps were unable to access vital health information during COVID-19 because of internet throttling.
During the August 2020 Belarusian election, the government blocked social media channels including WhatsApp, Telegram, Viber and Twitter as well as VPNs and Tor browsers.
Despite this, protesters took to the streets to contest Alexander Lukashenko’s presidential victory. As a result, the government imposed a full internet shutdown from the night of August 9 to August 12, 2020.
Belarusian journalist Hanna Liubakova, who has been covering the protests in Belarus, told Al Jazeera, “It was very difficult to verify information and do fact-checking because we received a lot of user-generated content.”
“Telegram channels became really important for citizens because that was the only platform that kind of worked a little bit at least,” said Liubakova. “It became the main source of information for so many people and the trend continues right now.”
An increased number of internet shutdowns have been deployed in areas of conflict. During last year’s war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, Azerbaijan shut down social media and communication to citizens for six weeks. The government said it had been done to prevent Armenian provocation.
In the Middle East
The country with the most internet shutdowns in the Middle East in 2020 has been Yemen, a country mired in armed conflict and humanitarian crisis. These shutdowns exacerbated the situation, making access to information and communication – both by Yemenis and by international organisations attempting to work in the country – very difficult.
In January 2020, 80 percent of internet capacity was cut in Yemen following reports of sabotage to fibre optic cables by Houthi rebels.
Jordan experienced three national shutdowns in 2020. The government restricted Facebook Live during a teachers’ union protest in July and August 2020. The Ministry of Education also blocked communication applications such as Telegram, WhatsApp and Facebook during national exams.
Other Middle Eastern countries that shut down the internet include Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Algeria.
Internet and telecommunication services have been shut down across several African countries including Burundi, Chad, Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya, Mali, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda.
In Ethiopia, 100 million people were plunged into a complete media blackout for two weeks following protests after the killing of Oromo musician, Haacaaluu Hundeessaa.
In Kenya, there were at least two reported internet disruptions in 2020 after two telecommunications towers were destroyed in Mandera County by the Somali armed group, al-Shabab.
Internet shutdowns have also occurred in Venezuela, Ecuador and Cuba.
In 2020, the Cuban government blocked access to Telegram, WhatsApp, Twitter, and other social media platforms for three days following rare large public protests decrying curbs to civil liberties.
What are the reasons behind internet shutdowns?
Governments have justified internet shutdowns citing fake news, precautionary measures, public safety and national security among other reasons.
The actual reasons for shutdowns have stemmed from political instability, elections, protests, communal violence, information control and exam cheating.
Seven countries including India, Guinea, Belarus, Burundi, Kyrgyzstan, Tanzania and Togo shut down the internet during an election period in 2020.