Governments intentionally shut down internet 182 times across 34 countries in 2021: report
Jonathan Greig April 28, 2022

Governments intentionally shut down internet 182 times across 34 countries in 2021: report

Governments intentionally shut down internet 182 times across 34 countries in 2021: report

Dozens of repressive governments intentionally shut down their country’s internet as a way to stop protests or stifle dissent in 2021, according to a new report from Access Now, a nonprofit tracking internet access globally. 

According to their data, authorities deliberately shut down the internet at least 182 times across 34 countries last year, both of which were increases on the figures seen in 2020. 

Authorities in Burkina Faso, Cuba, Chad, Eswatini, Iran, Jordan, Myanmar, Niger, Pakistan, Sudan and more shut down the internet in response to protest movements while internet shut downs in the Gaza Strip, Myanmar, and Ethiopia’s Tigray region were instituted during military conflicts. 

Chad, the Republic of the Congo, Iran, Niger, Uganda, and Zambia shut down the internet during elections, according to Access Now, which added that Benin, Iraq, and The Gambia shut down their internet during “key national events” like school exams.

Felicia Anthonio, #KeepItOn Campaign Manager at Access Now, said the shut downs intentionally disrupted not only everyday life, but “critical moments in a nation’s epoch.”

“Authorities shut down the internet to shut down democracy. That’s 182 times a leader decided to deliberately silence a people instead of empowering them to speak,” Anthonio said. 

Access Now noted that the biggest offender was India, which shut down its internet in sections of the country at least 106 times. This is the fourth consecutive year India has topped the list.  

A map showing where the outages occurred in 2021. Image: Access Now

In 2021, Access Now found that Myanmar shut down the internet at least 15 times while Sudan and Iran shut down the internet at least five times each. 

The longest internet shutdowns occurred in Pakistan, where 4.5 million residents of the Federally Administered Tribal Area spent nearly four years without internet. The blackout ended in December after starting in 2016. 

People living in Rakhine State in Myanmar spent 593 days without internet until February 3, 2021 and residents of Jammu and Kashmir in India spent 551 days without internet. The people of Tigray, a northern province of Ethiopia, have spent 539 days without internet and the outage continues to this day. 

Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Chad, Cuba, Eswatini, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Pakistan, Senegal, South Sudan, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uganda were among the 18 governments that shut down mobile internet as a way to crack down on protests. 

These kinds of shut downs happened at least 37 times in 2021, a marked increase compared to the 15 times seen in 2020. 

The governments of 22 countries instituted more targeted outages, blocking access to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok during protests. Some went further, blocking or criminalizing the use of VPNs to get around outages. 

Internet shutdowns were particularly popular during multiple coups in 2021. Sudan, Myanmar and other militaries preemptively shut down internet access before removing civilian governments from power, hoping to stop push back. 

“Internet shutdowns and the rise of authoritarianism go hand-in-hand,” said Marianne Díaz Hernández, #KeepItOn Fellow at Access Now. “In 2021, governments across the globe proved how powerful blackouts can be as all-in-one tools to assert control over populations. But we — civil society, the tech industry, UN bodies — also proved how powerful people can be in resisting and fighting this unstable online despotism.”

Hanna Kreitem, a technical expert for Internet Society, has been tracking global internet shutdowns for years through the organization’s Pulse Platform

Kreitem told The Record that internet outages affect people’s opportunities, livelihoods, health, education and can prevent them from taking part in daily activities. 

Kreitem noted that the current global pandemic has seen many government, health and commercial services move online, further reinforcing how important reliable and stable Internet access is for everyone and making the consequences of shutdowns for citizens even more severe. 

“During a shutdown, it becomes harder for people to contact family members and friends in other parts of the country, or in other countries and in times of political unrest this can be particularly difficult,” Kreitem said. “Governments often use shutdowns to restrict access to information and to curb citizen mobilization. This impacts the ability of citizens to demonstrate peacefully or get accurate information in times of unrest or emergency.”

Jonathan has worked across the globe as a journalist since 2014. Before moving back to New York City, he worked for news outlets in South Africa, Jordan and Cambodia. He previously covered cybersecurity at ZDNet and TechRepublic.