Why Internet Shutdowns Are Dangerous, Even for Liberal Democracies

Free Speech
April 9, 2021 Topic: Free Speech Region: World Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Free SpeechInternetCensorshipInternet Shutdown

Why Internet Shutdowns Are Dangerous, Even for Liberal Democracies

Often emergencies are justified as the pretext for government censorship and internet shutdowns.

Governments are weaponizing the internet to carry out violence and violate basic human rights in India, Iran and, most notably, Myanmar. Emergencies aren’t enough to legitimize internet shutdowns and the laws that enable them.

Amid ongoing protests, Myanmar’s military junta has ordered telecom companies to suspend wireless broadband services indefinitely. This move follows months of internet blackouts, digital curfews, and state censorship efforts intended to stifle public opposition. The situation in Myanmar is unique, but the tactics the military is using to maintain social control are becoming more frequent. The rise of internet shutdowns should alarm liberal democracies—even if many think “it can’t happen here.”

Myanmar is experiencing the world’s longest internet shutdown. Digital disruptions, which are occurring without explanation, have coincided with deadly clashes between the military and protestors. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners is aware of over 2,800 arrests and 600 deaths since the February 1 coup d’état, but the actual toll is likely much higher. Christine Schraner Burgener, a United Nations Special Envoy, warned that a “bloodbath is imminent” if the global community does not act swiftly.

The current state of unrest is occurring against a backdrop of long-standing political uncertainty. After gaining independence in 1948, Myanmar has largely been governed by military rule. It comes as no surprise then that the military is using a common battle tactic to maintain its power.

Tampering with enemy communication lines is a warfare strategy. For instance, during World War I, British forces manually cut German telegraph cables to hinder their adversaries’ ability to communicate. The rationale is similar to why soldiers sometimes burn enemy crops and homes: isolate and starve the target of its basic necessities. Myanmar’s military is employing this same tactic, but on its own people.

Internet shutdowns are more dangerous and widespread than any form of cable-cutting in the past. When the internet is turned off, the military is able to carry out violent attacks without accountability. During an internet blackout, it is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for citizens to communicate with each other and journalists to broadcast what is happening on the ground. Citizens can be arrested, beaten, and even killed by military forces without anyone knowing. The shutdowns have also impeded work and school, which depend on online platforms due to the coronavirus pandemic. According to Felicia Anthonio, #KeepItOn Lead at Access Now, the “military in Myanmar clearly understands the power of internet access.”

Myanmar’s military junta is not the only one who has turned off the internet. The first government-imposed shutdown occurred in Egypt during the 2011 Arab Spring, as a means to thwart protestors and silence political participation. Since then, intentional internet disruptions have occurred in other countries such as Pakistan, Iran, and even India, a democratic and constitutional republic. Yes, internet shutdowns can happen in liberal democracies.

In Myanmar and many other countries, internet shutdowns occur without explicit notification to the public. If the government does offer an explanation, they usually cite violence and public safety as justification. This rhetoric should sound eerily familiar to Americans, since legislators continue to point to misinformation and extremism as reasons to regulate social media websites. 

In Venezuela, Chad, and Senegal, governments have restricted social media and messaging applications, including Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp, during periods of unrest. In Myanmar, bans on social media websites have occurred simultaneously with internet shutdown orders and have been justified by the same, old, “stability” argument. Although platform censorship and shutdowns are complementary, Americans should not worry that their internet access is at risk. But America’s current discourse around Big Tech does contextualize how and why the state interferes with the internet.

There is already a law on the books that would enable an internet kill switch: Section 706 of the Communications Act of 1934 allows the president to cut off communication infrastructure during an emergency. This law was passed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, before the internet existed. Yet, around the world, outdated, overbroad, and nontransparent laws are how shutdowns are legally permissible. Similar laws have been proposed or enacted in at least twenty-seven countries. 

Americans should be worried about internet shutdowns, even if it doesn’t happen within U.S. borders. Digital authoritarianism attacks the global community and its ability to connect on online networks. There is no world wide web if whole regions and countries are forcefully excluded. Although broadband services are being turned off in Myanmar today, it can easily happen closer to home if leaders consider an emergency severe enough. American have already heard the safety argument, and legal loopholes are in place. Democracies around the world should not wait for that moment—keep the internet on, everywhere.

Rachel Chiu is a Young Voices contributor who writes about technology public policy. Her writing has been published in USA Today, Techdirt, The Hill, Real Clear Policy, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter: @rachelhchiu.

Image: Reuters.