Economic impact alone was £1.9bn, with greater fears over human rights and freedom of speech
Governments around the world enacted internet shutdowns over 50 times in the last year, according to a report focusing on the impact of such draconian actions.
In purely monetary terms, the shutdowns resulted in economic slowdowns that cost a total of $2.4bn (£1.9bn), according to research by The Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit public policy organisation. Some of the biggest losses came from India ($968m), Saudi Arabia ($465m), Morocco ($320m), Iraq ($209m), Republic of the Congo ($72m), and Pakistan ($69m).
However, even those figures may not convey the full scale of the costs – the Brookings research looked at “81 short-term shutdowns in 19 countries over the past year”.
Of greater concern is the impact the shutdowns had on human rights around the world. Per news agency IPS, the actions may have suppressed elections, limited free speech, and have even been associated with human rights violations.
“What we have found is that internet shutdowns go hand in hand with atrocities,” Deji Olukotun, Senior Global Advocacy Manager at digital rights organisation Access Now told IPS.
“In Ethiopia there’s been consistent blocking this year of social media and internet,” Olukotun said, adding that people have died “during the kind of blackout where it’s difficult to report on what’s happening”.
Elsewhere, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni shut down social media in February 2016, a move echoed in Gambia in December, which Olukotun says was “surrounding the election”.
Olukotun also highlighted the ways in which internet access was being blocked, with some countries blocking specific social media services, and others creating a ‘walled garden’, where only state-approved sites were accessible.
“It’s important that the internet that people do get online to gives them access to the whole internet and it’s not just a walled garden,” Olukotun said.
In some countries, internet users turned to VPNs to access an unrestricted internet, although IPS says: “other governments have used more sophisticated and targeted methods to disrupt the internet of certain groups.”
Looking forward, Olukotun called on independent service providers to reject state calls for access restrictions or censorship, saying: “Telecommunications companies can push back on government orders, or at least document them to show what’s been happening, to at least have a paper trail.”
Olukotun also suggested that organisations such as the International Telecommunications Union, the United Nations’ information and communication agency, could do more, such as being more forthcoming in issuing statements in response to shutdowns.