Anytime you see a government – or a group, in the case of the Taliban – expressing autocratic, authoritarian and repressive views, it follows that they can do whatever they say they want to do, that is – say restrict access to information and communication. I am very concerned about the situation in Afghanistan. It is essential to make sure that the people there have access to information, the ability to communicate and the ability to get the news.
How sophisticated does someone have to be to make any of these stops? Can anyone with a significant level of control over the Internet infrastructure engage in these activities?
You are right to point out that the way shutdowns occur is often related to the degree of control that a government has over the telecommunications infrastructure in a given country. And it varies: it varies country by country, and it varies over time.
One of the things that we have observed, and it has been well pointed out by others, is that a number of governments are considering laws that would increase their control over telecommunications infrastructure. This is part of three simultaneous trends. First of all, you have the increasing frequency of Internet shutdowns. Second, you have the increased attention of governments on how they control the telecommunications infrastructure in their countries. And you also see a recession of democracy around the world and an increase in autocratic governments wielding power over civil society.
What is the real risk?
It is certainly more than an inconvenience. It is a matter of life and death in some cases. It is certainly a question of lost livelihoods, restricted civil society, restricted access to information and restricted freedom of expression. I think as more and more people live their lives online and democratic institutions increasingly rely on the internet as a means to facilitate civic participation – to share news and information, so that people communicate with each other and for people to organize – the risk of a government shutting down the Internet comes with increasing costs.
Intentional global internet shutdowns
January 2020 – May 2021
What can the average person who uses the Internet do about it? What can we do to better recognize when this is happening and prevent it?
It depends a lot on your situation. There are a number of tools that can allow you to access the free and open internet, for example virtual private networks (VPNs). There are certain tools that allow you to protect yourself from certain types of censorship. DNS poisoning is a common form of censorship where a government manipulates individual URLs. We have a tool called Intra (and there are other tools as well) that protect users and allow them to bypass these restrictions.