Internet Blackouts: The Latest Front in the Battle for Information Control

Posted on by Andrea Little Limbago, PhD

Governments across the globe increasingly deploy a range of digital tools to suppress, hijack and drive broader narratives that support their own objectives, durability and legitimacy. This steady drumbeat of cyberattacks, surveillance, censorship and disinformation combines to comprise the authoritarian Internet playbook. This playbook expands in reach and influence with an overarching desire for information control and has evolved to integrate Internet blackouts targeting specific geographies, events or groups.

For years, the authoritarian Internet playbook often attributed to China and Russia has inspired other authoritarian governments and is increasingly adapted by democracies as well. From Hungary to Brazil to the Philippines to Iran, cyberattacks, disinformation and censorship are permanently deployed as a tool for information control, much to the detriment of democracy, social well-being and the economy.

What’s next in this Internet playbook? Based on recent trends, Internet blackouts are increasingly a popular tactic for digital disruption. From India to Guinea to Venezuela, government-led Internet blackouts aim to suppress anti-government dissent while enacting a significant human and economic toll on their populations. There were 213 documented incidents of shutdowns across at least 33 countries in 2019. These Internet blackouts have become a regular tactic, with India’s blackout in Kashmir the longest recorded in a democracy. Given this background, there are growing concerns that this global pattern will continue to grow throughout 2020.

In fact, there already have been numerous shutdowns in 2020, impacting democracy and the global economy. For instance, the Guinean government blocked dissent in March around elections, while Ethiopia instituted a blackout lasting from January to March. The Ethiopian shutdown targeted the Wollega province, an area rich with natural resources such as coffee, gold, platinum and coal. Internet blackouts such as these demonstrate their broad social and economic impact, and potential to disrupt the already shaken global supply chain.

According to the Business Continuity Institute’s Supply Chain Resilience Report, these kinds of Internet disruptions are the most top-of-mind disruption concern for almost two-thirds of organizations surveyed. Government-led Internet blackouts increased 6000% between 2011-2018, and cost the global economy $8 billion in 2019 alone. The economic costs of Internet blackouts are expected to increase in 2020; building up resilience to these kinds of events must be prioritized from both a human capital perspective as well as business continuity across the entire supply chain.

In April, the United Nations called for a global digital ceasefire, noting how attacks in the digital domain can be tantamount to those in the physical world. While there has understandably been a focus on the cyberattacks and disinformation, it’s important to remember that tactics evolve. Governments already increasingly seek to control information across the Internet and may escalate toward blackouts if their legitimacy is at stake, to suppress dissent, or even shape an election.

Just as Internet penetration expands, governments will continue to seek information control through whatever digital means possible. We have already seen the year-over-year growth in Internet blackouts, with little sign of abatement any time soon. These shutdowns introduce significant political and economic instability while harming the most vulnerable members of society. 

Andrea Little Limbago, PhD

Senior Vice President, Research & Analysis, Interos

Hackers & Threats

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