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Left in the dark: Millions hit by internet shutdowns in 2020

by Umberto Bacchi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 3 March 2021 14:04 GMT

Computer network equipment is seen in a server room in Vienna, Austria, October 25, 2018. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

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Access Now report finds almost 30 countries restricted access to the web at least 155 times last year, preventing millions from getting information about COVID-19

By Umberto Bacchi

March 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From Belarus to Myanmar, 29 countries suspended internet services in 2020, mainly during protests or elections, cutting off millions from vital information as the coronavirus pandemic raged, digital rights group Access Now said on Wednesday.

Internet shutdowns prevented people in dozens of countries from working, studying, communicating and accessing life-saving news last year, Access Now said in a report, describing the practice as potentially deadly.

"Shutting down the internet during a global health crisis is incredibly unsafe," Access Now campaigner Felicia Anthonio, said in a statement. "But, with no regard for human life, this is what governments did in 2020 — again, and again, and again."

Here are some of the key takeaways: 

  • Authorities interfered with the internet at least 155 times in 2020, shutting down both broadband and mobile connectivity in 28 cases, the report said.
  • Reported shutdowns fell by 26% in 2020 compared to 2019, but Access Now said this did not show improved digital rights overall as further analysis was needed to investigate underlying factors.
  • India led the world in internet shutdowns for the third year in a row, with 109 incidents, accounting for 70% of the total worldwide.
  • Yemen came second with six shutdowns and Ethiopia was third with four cases.
  • The most common type of shutdown involved cutting access to mobile internet, accounting for 73% of all cases.
  • Authorities can also slow down internet traffic - a practice known as throttling - and cut fixed-line internet and block access to specific platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp.
  • Most shutdowns were justified as precautionary measures to prevent security incidents or to stop the spread of fake news and hate speech. Most occurred during periods of political instability, elections, protests and conflict.
  • In Belarus, authorities disrupted internet connectivity for a total of 121 days last year, including a three-day complete outage, as mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko followed a contested election.
  • Myanmar has imposed a 19-month blackout - described by human rights groups as the world's longest shutdown - on the  conflict-torn states of Rakhine and Chin. A military coup on Feb. 1 was followed by further nationwide blackouts.
  • Bangladesh restricted internet services to Rohingya refugees in camps in Cox's Bazar for 355 days citing security fears.
  • Civil rights groups scored some legal victories in 2020, successfully challenging internet restrictions in Indonesia and Togo.


(Sources: Reuters, Access Now)     


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(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)