How does an internet shutdown work? And how do you bypass internet shutdowns? Learn about the different tools, platforms and software that will keep you online.
Discover and download the Internet Blackout Toolkit so you can be prepared and keep connected.
What is an Internet Shutdown?
In simple words, an internet shutdown involves intentionally disrupting or blocking internet access. They are also referred to as kill switches and blackouts. They can be done through throttling, when connectivity speeds are reduced to such a slow pace it’s almost impossible for pages to load. It’s also done by working with Internet Service Providers to cut off web access altogether.
Internet blackouts can occur at a localised or even national level, where an entire country has its telecommunications cut off. They are divided into two categories;
Partial Shutdown: The government limits access to specific websites or apps. A partial shutdown is done to prevent people from sharing information with others, typically via social media.
Total Shutdown: In a total shutdown, all internet services are entirely stopped, including mobile data services and broadband carriers. The internet is no longer functional, and people cannot get online via any device. In developing nations, where internet access is unreliable, people take some time to understand that an intentional intervention is taking place.
Shutdowns are becoming more common every year. In 2015, only 15 shutdowns were documented. This number rose to 56 in 2016. In India alone, Human Rights Watch reported 20 shutdowns in 2017. However, www.internetshutdowns.in documented 41 shutdowns for the same period.
Why are Internet Shutdowns Used?
Most governments around the world apply censorship in some way or another. But a total Internet shutdown has a more immediate and widespread effect.
Concerns for national security are the leading cause of internet shutdowns globally. But governments also claim that shutdowns are necessary to prevent the spread of misinformation and ensure public safety.
Some common reasons given for blackouts:
- To maintain peace – such as during elections in Ghana or to curb attacks during national holidays.
- To disrupt political unrest – enforced during protests in Kashmir, Venezuela and Cameroon, for example
- To help with logistical matters, such as preventing students from cheating in exams.
- To discourage access to “foreign propaganda”.
- To penalize companies, for example, messaging services companies.
More often than not, internet shutdowns are a means to control the views and actions of people. They limit a citizen’s ability to access information and express themselves freely. It means businesses are put on hold, students can’t study, and critical health services cannot be reached. Overall, the economy suffers and social life is disrupted.
Internet shutdowns and your human rights
In more extreme cases, shutdowns disrupt democracy and journalists cannot report on government corruption or abuse. Social media blackouts are also commonly used during elections to minimise public discourse, stifle dissent and weaken minority groups. These platforms for open expression and communication, such as Twitter, are a threat to many dictatorial regimes and are therefore blocked. It’s far easier to control and promote the official government narrative if the general population is silenced.
Unsurprisingly though, internet blackouts tend to attract global attention and put pressure on countries that use them. This produces the Streisand effect, in which trying to hide information or silence voices can cause the unintended effect of bringing these events even more attention. By incorporating transparency into governmental procedures, civil unrest is less likely to occur.
The world leader in internet shutdowns is India, who frequently shutdown the internet in certain regions for reasons such as avoiding loss of life during periods of crisis. Yet an outdated law from 1885 is used to justify these frequent internet shutdowns. In 2019, authorities shut down the internet in Kashmir for months, revoking their autonomy and statehood. This was deemed necessary to avoid “to maintain security in the restive territory claimed by both India and Pakistan.”.
However, a study by Stanford Global Digital Policy Incubator states that shutdowns are counterproductive to discouraging violent events. The study found there was an increase of violence by four times when networks were disrupted.
Other experts believe that as the frequency of internet shutdowns increase, they will become normalised. So while national security is the initial justification, citizens may become complacent over time, even as the use of shutdowns are used for more sinister purposes.
Impacts of Internet Shutdown
Aside from the threat to people’s human rights, internet shutdowns have a major impact on national economies, jobs and growth. Businesses are cut off from their customers, suppliers and distributors, incurring huge losses that governments won’t simply pay back.
According to Brookings, in 2015-16, internet shutdowns cost the entire world $2.4 billion, with India alone suffering a loss of $1bn in economic production. During the Arab Spring in Egypt, the cost of an internet blackout resulted in a $90 million loss. If the shutdown continued for the whole year, it would have cost 3-4% of Egypt’s GDP.
In Cameroon, many entrepreneurs suffer during an internet shutdown. Businesses that rely on the internet, especially e-commerce websites, were adversely impacted. As a residual effect, shutdowns prevent investment opportunities; if businesses operate in a country with frequent shutdowns, investors are not likely to back them, as they can’t continuously run their business operations.
If a website is hosted in a particular country that experiences a blackout, this means the rest of the world also loses access to that service. This could disrupt or cut off supply chains, financial transactions, interpersonal communication, and enterprise workflows. It may also have a localisation effect, as the internet no longer becomes a reliable platform for business, forcing companies to turn inward, rather than outward and join the global economy.
Aside from the economy, most people depend on the internet in some way in their daily lives. Without a functioning internet, fundamental services like healthcare, education, banks, and other public services are slowed down or come to a standstill. Quality of life is greatly diminished and the risk to livelihoods and health increases, especially when people can’t contact emergency services.
A local internet shutdown can also have a significant technical impact on the rest of the internet. The web is an interconnected network where everyone contributes to the system as a whole. Internet shutdowns can undermine the network and generate systemic risks.
How to Bypass Internet Shutdowns?
The United Nations Human Rights Council condemned internet blackouts for breaching your human rights. And while internet shutdowns are still becoming more commonplace, there are ways to arm yourself now in case you experience one.
Here are some ways to bypass internet shutdowns;
Use a VPN
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) creates a secure portal between devices, providing an encrypted connection to the internet no matter where you are. When you use a VPN, your computer or phone is connected to a VPN’s server, located overseas. This hides your IP address and enables you to visit websites that were restricted before, as you’re “tricking” your ISP into thinking you’re somewhere else. VPNs are regarded as the easiest and safest way to bypass internet shutdowns.
Laws around the use of VPNs vary by region. It’s important to understand the security aspects of each network before you use them. You can read through That One Privacy Site to learn about these different virtual networks.
Mysterium Network offers a decentralized VPN, which is built on the world’s largest P2P network. You can easily select from a list of locations around the world to connect to, unblocking content. It’s open-source and available for Mac, Windows, and Android.
Also ensure that websites you visit are running over HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure), even when using a VPN. This means you will always access the original website and not any modified version of it. You can install HTTPS Everywhere extension for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera, to guarantee you’re browsing the encrypted version of the website.
Circumvention Tools and Proxies
Circumvention tools help you bypass censored websites and anonymously browse the internet. They can help you become undetectable to ISPs and governments. Users channel their traffic via a different computer – called a proxy.
Psiphon is an award-winning circumvention system that leverages open-source web proxies, helping you skirt around content-filtering systems.
Lantern is another open-source proxy software application for desktop and mobile. It provides users access to the open internet. Lantern is different from other tools as it leverages peer-to-peer connections for internet connectivity when servers are not available.
Tails is an operating system that allows you to browse the internet on any computer. It uses cryptographic tools to encrypt email messages and files.
Tor Browser is a tool for accessing blocked websites without being tracked. It routes your traffic through a global node network run by volunteers, much like a decentralized VPN. This prevents surveillance of your browsing habits or tracing your location. It is very popular among journalists and privacy advocates. It’s available for Linux, Mac, Windows, and Android.
Whonix is a free and open-source desktop operating system (OS) that is specifically designed for advanced security and privacy. The software helps you run your apps anonymously, anonymising everything you do online. The project suggests it’s the best way to use Tor, as it provides the strongest protection of your IP address. Whonix is available for Windows, macOS and Linux.
The Guardian Project also offers apps such as Orbot that help you access the internet anonymously by encrypting your internet traffic.
Use censorship-resistant websites and networks
Unstoppable Domains is a platform to launch uncensorable websites. The domain runs on the blockchain (decentralized and permanent) and is stored in your cryptocurrency wallet, so no one can take it down but you. You can also use their chat and email functions, so you can communicate directly peer-to-peer.
I2P is an anonymous network built on top of the internet. It allows users to create and access content and build online communities. It is intended to protect communication and resist monitoring by third parties such as ISPs. All data is wrapped with several layers of encryption, and the network is both distributed and dynamic, with no trusted parties.
Freenet is a peer-to-peer platform for censorship-resistant communication and publishing.
The software lets you anonymously share files, browse and publish “freesites” (web sites accessible only through Freenet) and chat on forums. Freenet is decentralised to make it less vulnerable to attack, and if used in “darknet” mode, users only connect to their friends, making it very difficult to detect. Communications by Freenet nodes are encrypted and are routed through other nodes to make it extremely difficult to determine who is requesting the information and what its content is.
Communication Tools - encrypted and offline
There are messaging tools that are designed for private and censorship-proof communications. Popular apps like Telegram encrypt your messaging, including client-client encryption with Secret Chats. Signal is also well-known for its encryption and security.
Vuvuzela is a private chat application that hides metadata, including who you chat with and when you are chatting. Vuvuzela supports millions of users and is secure even if the network and a majority of the servers are compromised.
There are also offline communication tools that don’t require any internet access, but you’ll have to download and set them up when online.
Another project is Bridgefy.me that works on a mesh network (more on these below). This helps you use applications without an internet connection. Available on both iOS and Android, it covers thousands of users at the same time.
While you’ll be unable to browse Facebook and Google, you can create a chat room and voice your message there during an internet shutdown.
In certain scenarios, governments can also shut down central telecom systems. This can cut off all connection, or reduce its quality so much that it’s barely useable. This creates a need for an entirely new network altogether.
Instead of connecting to the internet through your ISP, mesh networks enable direct connection between devices, without any middlemen. Mesh networks automatically reconfigure connections, depending upon the availability and proximity of bandwidth and storage.
As they are decentralized networks, it isn’t easy to shut them down. One possible way to do it is by shutting down each node, which is near impossible. Hence, mesh networks are robust and resistant to internet shutdowns.
Mesh networks are a relatively new concept and haven’t been implemented on a wide scale use yet. However, projects like Commotion are accelerating the adoption of mesh networks. You can easily set up your own network using their technology.
There are lots of great resources that can link you to even more tools. Check out these guides and lists, but note some of these apps and software are a bit more advanced to set up and require more technical knowledge;
Along with all this knowledge, also be sure to install antivirus software. This guarantees that there is no malicious software on your laptop. Ephraim Muchemi, who conducts training in digital security with the US-based non-profit International Research and Exchange Board, states that antivirus is the key to everything. Some suggested options are MalwareBytes and HitmanPro.
There are also many organisations out there fighting for your digital freedom and human rights. You can learn about the work they’re doing, and often collaborate or get involved in advocacy work;
Access Now is a group that defends citizen’s digital rights across the globe, with an objective to abolish the practice of internet shutdown. They are a great resource for learning about internet shutdowns.
Article19 – works for a world where all people everywhere can freely express themselves and actively engage in public life without fear of discrimination.
We do this by working on two interlocking freedoms: the Freedom to Speak, and the Freedom to Know
Human Rights Watch – We advocate for laws and policies that promote privacy, digital inclusion, and respect for human rights by social media platforms.
Electronic Frontier Foundation – leading nonprofit defending digital privacy, free speech, and innovation
Internet Society – a global nonprofit organization empowering people to keep the Internet a force for good: open, globally connected, secure, and trustworthy.
Unblock the future
Recently, students from London’s Imperial College and Royal College of Art have developed a system, called Fallback, which offers access to news coverage through a portable satellite modem during internet shutdown.
The tool is a subscription-based model that enables users to pre-select the news websites they usually read. During a shutdown, news articles can be encrypted and delivered to them via satellite.
A portable server helps decrypt the data, and viewers can read on any Wifi-enabled device using a simplified user interface. Fallback works on a forecasting algorithm that can anticipate which nations are most at risk of an internet shutdown. Right now the team are trying to get the system up and running in countries where it’s needed most.