In February Access Now published their annual report of the #KeepItOn coalition, documenting internet shutdowns around the world. We spoke to Berhan Taye, senior policy analyst at Access Now and leader of the NGO’s global campaign to stop internet shutdowns.
From India to the United Kingdom
netzpolitik.org: You conclude that India currently is the worst offender regarding internet shutdowns. What methods does the Indian government use, how do these methods change over time and how do they justify it?
Berhan Taye: In the case of actual techniques of shutting down the internet, the Indian government usually shuts down mobile data and, at times, both mobile data and broadband or fixed-line connections. Most of the time, they order the service providers to disrupt internet connection, and often the service providers are forced to comply. While giving this order to the service provider, it is quite common for the government to justify the shutdown. The most common justification observed in India is fake news and hate speech or misinformation and precautionary measures. The Indian government has used these two justifications for many years.
netzpolitik.org: You mention the United Kingdom as a perpetrator in your report. Net blocks in Europe are less heard of. What is happening here?
Berhan Taye: In April 2019, the British Transportation Police shut down the internet (Wifi) in the underground transportation systems to deter protestors from organizing and protesting. The action of the transportation police falls within the definition of internet shutdowns. It is indeed not common to see this in Western Europe, and this case should not set a precedence in other parts of the continent. However, this case should serve as a warning to citizens that their governments might shut down the internet, even in the most unexpected circumstances like the UK. They must always be vigilant and prepare for these kinds of situations.
More than five months of shutdown in Kashmir
netzpolitik.org: You are working with 210 organizations from 75 countries on your campaign called #KeepItOn. How do you go about assembling the data?
Berhan Taye: We have a robust working methodology that guides our data collection, verification, and confirmation process. We also have a mailing list where these 210 civil society organizations come together to alert the community about impending shutdowns and identify and verify incidents. We also heavily depend on news and media reporting about shutdowns, protests, and other events that generally trigger shutdowns. Once we get the initial information that a shutdown had occurred, we go back to different platforms that host user traffic data to see if they have also been able to identify the dip in traffic or, in some context, blackouts. We also take the same information to our local partners to see if they have also documented the same shutdowns and also inquire about the context that triggered the shutdown. After we verify the incident and understand the context, we input the data into our system.
netzpolitik.org: What is the most effective – that is repressive – type of a net block you encountered (not including the frequency in which blocks occur)?
Berhan Taye: The most pervasive internet shutdowns that have put many people in darkness is the shutdown in Kashmir. As the shutdown lasted for more than five months, journalists, human rights defenders, activists, and others found it hard to reach out to the world to tell the gruesome human rights violations that were happening in Jammu and Kashmir. Given the situation that was happening on the ground, this is probably the most pervasive shutdown we have seen in a while. One important thing to note, however, is that since we started this work back in 2011, we have seen that an internet shutdown might delay change, but it never is effective in squashing protests or people’s call for change. For instance, if you look at Sudan, the government shut down social media for over a month and tried to disrupt the protests, but the people still managed to organize and bring down a 30 years old dictatorship in less than a year. So shutdowns are rarely effective at disabling people’s ability to organize and call for change.
Throttling is less conspicuous than blocking
netzpolitik.org: The government of Jordan decided to throttle but not directly block Facebook Live, a live event streaming service. May you guess how such a decision is made?
Berhan Taye: The majority of the world did not know that Jordan had throttled Facebook live streaming services until this report came out. However, if Jordan had blocked Facebook, it would have been very easy to identify this blocking. Governments typically throttle services because it is hard to prove incidents like throttling when compared to blockings or shutdown. Moreover, people that are not able to upload or live stream events are most likely going to assume there’s something wrong with their internet as every other part of the internet functions well, rather than questions their service providers. So, yes, the reasons why the government throttle the internet or specific parts of the internet is because they can easily hide throttling rather than complete shutdowns or blocking of sites.
netzpolitik.org: Following up, how do most government actors block or throttle a service technically?
Berhan Taye: Here are some of the techniques governments use to throttle the internet.
- Bandwidth management / Traffic shaping and policing: Bandwidth management, which can be done by source or destination IP addresses, IP subnets, VLANs, or MAC addresses.
- QoS: Networking technologies such as QoS (Quality of Service) are sometimes used to prioritize particular types of communication (protocols) over others, which can have a throttling effect on the deprioritized communication protocols traffic.
- Inline DPI: Inline DPI (Deep Packet Inspection) devices at layer 5 and above can be used to introduce latency.
- NIC / Port partitioning: NIC (Network Interface Card) / port partitioning at layer 2, which will affect all traffic.
- Routing path: The routing path can be altered to be longer, or go through lower capacity
chokepoints in the network to create a throttling effect.
netzpolitik.org: You go into detail about the blocking of social media services as they become more popular around the world. Is the use of Tor or VPNs a viable option for bypassing these blocks? Or are you putting yourself in danger?
Berhan Taye: Most people can circumvent social media blocking by using Tor and VPNs. However, whether people put themselves in danger or not depends on the country and the context they are in. Some states make circumvention or the use of VPNs and Tor illegal, while others don’t criminalize circumvention. Besides, there’s a big chance government that blocks social media often monitor those trying to bypass the censorship and are likely to use surveillance as well. So one should be cautious not to endanger themselves further.
The interview was conducted by mail in the English language.