A notification of a government-enforced internet suspension, India, December 2019. Photograph: Avijit Ghosh/SOPA Images/REX/ShutterstockA notification of a government-enforced internet suspension, India, December 2019. Photograph: Avijit Ghosh/SOPA Images/REX/ShutterstockGlobal developmentRecord number of countries enforced internet shutdowns in 2022 – report
Access to internet services restricted 187 times by 35 countries says new research, with India, Iran and Myanmar repeatedly enforcing blackouts
A record number of countries switched off access to internet services in response to political upheaval last year, causing “incalculable and persistent damage to people’s lives”, according to a new report.
The research by internet rights group Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition documents 187 shutdowns in 2022. These were introduced by governments in 35 countries – the highest number in a single year since the groups began documenting internet blackouts in 2016.
Most of the shutdowns were triggered by protests, conflict and allegations of human rights violations, with a smaller number coinciding with school exams and elections.
India is singled out as the “biggest offender” with at least 84 internet blackouts in 2022. Most of these happened in the disputed regions of Jammu and Kashmir, both long gripped by political instability, although the practice has spread to other regions of the country, according to the report.
Other repeat offenders include Iran, which turned off the internet 18 times as it clamped down on anti-regime protests, and Myanmar’s junta, which introduced seven blackouts.
Russia’s military used missile strikes and cyber-attacks to cut off the internet in Ukraine 22 times and also made efforts to “force occupied territories on to highly censored and surveilled Russian networks”, the report says.
The blackout imposed by Ethiopia’s government on its rebellious Tigray region is the longest shutdown recorded by Access Now and #KeepItOn, lasting more than two years amid allegations of killings, rape and ethnic cleansing. Phone and mobile internet were restored to Tigray after the signing of a ceasefire in November, but some areas remain cut off.
Most of the governments that shut off their citizens’ internet access last year are ones with a record of resorting to communications blackouts when faced with dissent.
“Governments wield internet shutdowns as weapons of control and shields of impunity,” said Felicia Anthonio from Access Now. “In 2022, under authoritarian regimes and in democracies, powermongers accelerated their use of these callous tactics, disrupting the internet to fuel their agendas of oppression – manipulating narratives, silencing voices, and ensuring cover for their own acts of violence and abuse.”
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One positive trend noted by the report is the drop in the number of countries cutting the internet during elections, with only five countries doing so in 2022 compared with 12 in 2021.
However, Access Now and #KeepItOn say they are concerned about 17 elections – including in Pakistan, DRC, Guatemala and Zimbabwe – taking place this year “focusing in particular on countries that have previously cut internet access or blocked communications platforms”.
Internet shutdowns reached a peak of 213 blackouts (in 33 countries) in 2019, according to the report, before dropping to 159 in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. The report’s authors warn the number of shutdowns is now on the increase.
“The damage internet shutdowns caused last year is unfathomable, but in 2023 and beyond it is not inevitable,” said Zach Rosson, a data analyst at Access Now. “We – as the international community – have the power and the momentum to not only stop the resurging global trend of deliberate disruptions, but to expunge it for good.”