With digital authoritarianism on the rise, an information black hole is forming – but an answer might be orbiting above.
The videos spread like wildfire over WhatsApp and Instagram; Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube having been banned for years. In them, women defiantly wave their hijabs above their heads. Others show people chanting for “women, life, freedom,” confronting armed police, burning headscarves. Still others show blood, injury, flames, even death. And then, darkness. Iranian officials shut down the internet. As the country is galvanized by protests against 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini’s death in police custody – and the broader issues of repression and economic woes – the government turned to the blunt weapon of information control in a bid to halt growing dissent.
Iranians outside the country don’t want to speak out publicly about losing contact with their loved ones, fearful of the repercussions. This isn’t the first time the Iranian government has flicked the switch. In 2019, during massive civil unrest due to rising economic disparity and despair, the web was blacked out for six days. “Because there was no news coming, it was very hard for us to document it,” recalls Iranian feminist activist Shaghayegh Norouzi. “There wasn’t pressure from other countries because they had no idea what was happening. It stopped people from using the internet to manage protests, and it caused more casualties and arrests. They are using the internet shutdown to buy more time to stop protests.” Norouzi – and others in the diaspora – are fearful that history is repeating itself. Soraya Lennie, an Iranian journalist and author of Crooked Alleys: Deliverance and Despair in Iran, says, “An internet blackout is a bad sign, which could have much more severe consequences than what we’ve seen so far.”
Pre-internet, it was much easier for authoritarian regimes to keep a lid on information. Governments controlled the media, regulating what people could see on TV, hear on the radio, and read in newspapers. Books, music, and film were also easily censored, or used as propaganda. International sanctions and travel bans further isolated populations, with the information flow drying up both ways – nothing got in, and nothing got out. But the advent of the world wide web made information control much trickier. People were not dependent on state news outlets for information anymore and could watch events unfold first-hand – and in real-time – from anywhere in the world. Instead of small groups thinking they were acting alone, people could mobilize bigger movements. Dissent could spread quicker, safer, and easier, especially over social media and encrypted messaging apps like Signal or Telegram.
In this age of information, intentionally blocking the internet is a brutally effective tool – but it is also a human rights issue. In a report released earlier this year, the UN notes that blackouts cause incalculable damage. “Internet shutdowns, by their very nature, restrict human rights,” the report says. “Hospitals being unable to contact their doctors in cases of emergency, voters being deprived of information about candidates, and peaceful protesters who fall under violent attack being unable to call for help are just some of the situations confronted when an internet and telecommunications services shutdown occurs,” it continues. While it is legal in many countries, the UN points out that blackouts do in fact contravene international human rights laws. “Blunt measures such as blanket internet shutdowns, sometimes for prolonged periods, contravene international law, affecting states’ obligations to respect, in addition to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly, a wide range of rights,” states a resolution adopted in 2020. While Iran is a member of the UN, it is notably absent from its Human Rights Council.
In 2021, there were 182 internet shutdowns across 34 countries, nine of them in the Mena region, according to Access Now – a global non-government organization that tracks connectivity and advocates for digital civil rights around the world. Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen all shut down their internet at some point during the year, whether to quell dissent, prevent cheating in exams, or as the result of military coups or political sabotage. This is an increase from 2020’s figures, when there were 159 shutdowns in 29 countries. The pandemic may have caused a dip in authorities’ use of this extreme measure, but the cyber kill switch is back in action. “Authorities shut down the internet to shut down democracy,” says Felicia Anthonio, campaign manager at Access Now. In a recent report, the organization notes that this increase in shutdowns is “yet another warning sign of the rise of digital authoritarianism across the globe.”
But what is an internet shutdown, and why do governments use it as a weapon against their own people? It is in effect the canary in the coal mine – when a totalitarian government shuts down or drastically starts limiting the internet, it is usually a sign of terrible things happening to its people; things it doesn’t want the world – or the rest of its population – to see. Social media and messaging apps are a lifeline for communication to spread, and blocking it means people can’t mobilize and organize, leaving them feeling isolated and alone. In a recent post about the current Iranian protests, the anonymous Instagram account @1500tasvir, which has been sharing videos throughout, notes, “With the internet outage, they want every city and local to feel alone in the struggle and think other people are silent. But the truth is that protests continue with force in dozens of Iranian cities.”
Shutdowns have various levels of severity, ranging from complete blackouts, to only targeting certain sectors. The internet doesn’t have an “off” button – instead, in countries where the state doesn’t run the internet infrastructure, authorities will order internet service providers to shut off connectivity or access, often by threatening legal action and even imprisonment if they don’t comply. Other countries can also launch a cyberattack to knock out the systems, as Russia did to Ukraine in February this year, an hour before it invaded. The most debilitating option severs internet, mobile, and telephone access, plunging people in complete cyber darkness, with dire consequences for businesses, hospitals, and financial systems. This kind of shutdown cannot always be circumvented with the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) – which are usually also outlawed by totalitarian regimes – or international SIM cards. Some countries such as Jordan, Algeria, and India do short-term blackouts during school and university exams, ostensibly to curtail cheating. Another tactic authoritarians may use is to throttle internet speed, taking 4G down to 2G and making streaming and videos so slow that news can’t spread efficiently. Further options include only taking down non-government institutions, or certain areas. Blocklisting is when specific sites are blocked, such as social media platforms, instant messaging apps, or news websites. This can have devastating consequences not only on communication and organizing abilities, but small businesses as well. A firewall is another example – like the one employed by China. Its so-called “great firewall” uses such sophisticated controls that, while the government has implemented complete blackouts before, it now rarely resorts to that strategy, since it has near total command over the global web – people in China can only access sites and upload content approved by the regime.
In terms of the number of blackouts in recent years, India is the biggest offender, having shut down the internet in parts of the country – particularly Kashmir – 106 times last year, followed by Myanmar, Sudan, and Iran, according to Access Now. “Over the past five years, our documentation shows that authorities have increasingly moved to disrupt the internet during events that affect the country’s political situation, such as elections, protests, coups, and violent conflicts,” it says.
While states increasingly weaponize internet access, technology moves at such a pace that the solution might already be orbiting in the atmosphere. “The tech sector, including satellite providers, can probably play the most useful role in helping Iranians subvert internet blocks, filters, and potential shutdown. It’s a complicated space but the most useful,” says Lennie. When Russia cut off Ukraine’s internet infrastructure, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk deployed his Starlink satellite internet constellation to circumvent the sabotaged servers on the ground and get crucial communications back up and running. While the technology cannot yet be scaled up to cover the complete needs of entire countries, Musk and other operators have been given permission by the US government to activate Starlink in Iran, bypassing sanctions. “It’s clear that the people of Iran are protesting more vividly and to the point than before, even with more anger,” says Norouzi. “Iran’s society will not go back to what it was before Mahsa Amini’s death.” Shutting down the internet to shut up critics is a cruel weapon – but information, like the human spirit, will always find a way out.
Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2022 issue of Vogue Man Arabia