By Alexander Sikorski
On January 13, 2021, the regime of Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni ordered internet service providers to suspend all but essential government communications, plunging the country into a complete internet blackout the day before the presidential elections. That same day, the house of leading opposition candidate Bobi Wine was surrounded by security services as the former musician was placed under effective house arrest.
The move came immediately after Facebook shut down a network of accounts linked to the Ministry of Information, which the company said were involved in spreading misinformation and manipulating public opinion ahead of the polls. For the next five days, opposition politicians and ordinary citizens alike were cut off from all online services including social media. The next day, on January 14, the state-run electoral commission declared Museveni the winner of an election preceded by a brutal crackdown against civil society and political opponents and discredited by allegations of fraud and the lowest turnout in Museveni’s 35 years of rule.
Many websites remain blocked and services such as Facebook and Whatsapp remain accessible only with a VPN, a software that hides your IP address and allows you access the internet as if you were in a different country. According to Netblocks, a non-governmental organization dedicated to monitoring internet freedom, the efficiency of the shutdown and the stability of essential government services suggests that the blackout was planned far in advance. And it was successful. The shutdown prevented people from communicating and made it difficult to document and share cases of fraud.
Internet blackouts are now a standard tool of dictatorships. In 2019, the #KeepItOn coalition recorded 213 internet shutdowns across 33 countries worldwide. Faced with popular protests, contentious elections, or other politically-sensitive crises, authoritarians do not hesitate to cut citizens off from the internet and social media.
In the short term, these shutdowns can be effective because they can quickly restrict the flow of information going out of a region, cripple the ability of journalists and citizens to document violence or other atrocities, and stifle activists from organizing protests. For example, in early November 2020, minutes before Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, recipient of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, announced on Twitter a military offensive to retake control of the rebellious northern region of Tigray, the Internet was cut off in this part of northern Ethiopia. With Tigray cut off from internet, mobile phone and landline communications, journalists, observers, and aid workers found it impossible to get accurate information about the conflict and humanitarian crisis as propaganda claims and counter-claims created the perfect fog of war. In addition, both Abiy’s government and the rebels waged political messaging campaigns on social media to shape global opinion and favorably control the narrative.
Similarly, in November 2019, the Iranian government shut off the internet in response to mass demonstrations against a rise in gasoline prices. The blackout made it difficult for human rights activists to accurately monitor and verify the scale of the violence against the protesters, and initial reports undercounted the number of deaths caused by the regime’s crackdown. This information blackout allowed the Iranian regime to establish its own narrative while obscuring the truth before more citizens or the international community can react.
However, in the long term, internet shutdowns may not be effective in suppressing dissent, and only fuel increased resentment against authoritarian regimes. Internet shutdowns are expensive, increasingly easy to bypass, and reveal the illegitimacy of the regime that resorts to them. For example, last summer, the Belarusian government blocked social media and shut down internet services in the lead up and following the presidential elections. For four days following the elections, Belarusians suffered under a near total internet blackout, while internet outages became a staple for weeks as protests swelled after the elections.
However, instead of suppressing the protests, the blackout only fueled anger against the Lukashenko regime. Protestors found that they could still use privacy tools and Psiphon, which saw its daily users skyrocket from 10,000 to 1 million in just one day. Meanwhile, the influence of traditional media sources like radio and newspapers sharply declined, as Belarusians turned to encrypted apps like Telegram to get news and updates about protests and police brutality. In the end, the internet blackout was unsustainable. Netblocks estimates the internet outages cost the Belarusian economy over $56 million per day, and didn’t meaningfully prevent protestors from mobilizing against the regime. The protests in Belarus continue to this day.
We are at the high water mark for internet shutdowns. As internet services are gradually restored in Uganda, the government may believe that they have successfully quashed dissent. But they will likely be proven wrong as more and more citizens realize the potential of privacy tools, and organize more efficiently against a government that doesn’t think twice about restricting basic freedoms. In the meantime, new technologies like low earth orbit Satellite Internet constellation projects will allow future protest movements to freely access the internet anywhere, and at any time in the world. Internet shutdowns are receding into the past.