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Kill switch: reporting on and during internet shutdowns

A data journalist’s guide for measuring internet shutdowns

On the 16th of September, Iranian woman Mahsa Amini died in a hospital in Tehran. Her death became a catalyst for protests across Iran and is being cited as “Iran’s George Floyd moment”. As a way to quell the outrage, the Iranian government then carried out a number of shutdowns in several areas of the country and blocked popular mobile messaging apps.

This isn’t the first time Iran has led a series of internet shutdowns and censorship - they have a long history of it - nor is it the only country in the world to utilise such techniques. Shutdowns are emerging as a common practice, used by governments across the world to suppress dissent.

Data shows that shutdowns and applications of censorship are becoming more and more common across the world. In just the first half of 2022, there was a 22% increase in shutdowns compared to the previous year, impacting 1.89 billion citizens globally.

Because internet shutdowns exist on a spectrum, they can be difficult to pinpoint, verify, understand and as a result, report on. T'his article offers a summary for data journalists to begin understanding how these shutdowns happen, how to investigate them and how to begin measuring them so we can better report on them.

What are internet shutdowns?

Internet shutdowns are a tool for information control. The practice of shutting down and censoring the internet is emerging as a key human rights issue, violating citizens’ freedom of expression, right to assembly and access to information. A 2021 report by Google’s Jigsaw project found that internet shutdowns are increasing at an ‘exponential’ rate, ‘threatening civil society’. But how do we define a shutdown?

According to Access Now, an international human rights organisation founded in 2009 as a response to the Iranian election that year, an internet shutdown is “an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.” This can happen on a countrywide level, in specific regions or for specific networks. Shutdowns can happen for any period of time - a few hours, a couple of weeks , or even several months. The pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019 led to the Chinese government imposing a new national security law which gave them the power to shut down internet services in the city. This law also granted the government the power to censure online content and arrest individuals for posting or spreading "fake news" or "hate speech" on social media platforms and in the case of Tigray, Ethiopia, citizens have been experiencing an internet shutdown that has lasted more than two years, becoming one of the world’s longest and silencing the voices of over six million people.

“Things are kind of coming full circle unfortunately, but we were basically founded as an emergency response tool,” says Zach Rosson, Data Analyst for the #KeepItOn campaign at Access Now. Access Now’s #KeepItOn campaign is an international association of digital advocacy groups that reports on the digital rights of users at risk around the world. They have a 24/7 hotline where citizens, civil rights groups, activists and journalists can call in if they are experiencing an internet shutdown, as well as handbooks, digital safety tips and other resources to help people stay on top of their digital right to internet access. “Given how entrenched the internet is for increasingly larger percentages of the population around the world, there's a fundamental human rights aspect when it comes to shutting down the internet.”

However, when it comes to internet censorship, it is about the blocking of “specific websites and applications,” says Maria Xynou, internet censorship researcher & community lead at OONI (Open Observatory of Network Interference), a global community that has been measuring Internet censorship since 2012. “The main difference between shutdown and censorship is basically that with censorship, we're referring to the targeted shutdown of specific services.” (To learn more about internet censorship, OONI’s Maria Xynou has a free course online at Advocacy Assembly).

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The impact of shutdowns

Internet shutdowns can affect so many areas of life - and livelihood. In Iran, the economic cost of internet disruptions and mobile outages or restrictions costs the country $37 million a day, according to internet monitoring group NetBlocks. This is likely why Iran has decided to target certain apps instead of the sweeping blackouts during the previous swell of protests back in 2019.

So why should journalists care? Because government-instigated internet shutdowns are a violation of citizens’ democratic rights. They are happening more often, lasting longer, becoming more sophisticated and harder to detect. The incidences of global shutdowns remain high, with 196 documented incidents in 2018, 213 incidents in 2019, and 155 in 2020, according to a paper from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Cutting access to stifle public dissent is an increasing global trend that affects journalists and activists significantly, among others. In its 2022 report, the UN Human Rights Office warns that internet shutdowns have a ‘dramatic’ impact on people's lives and human rights as access to the internet is a democratic right.

At a very basic level, internet shutdowns harm the capacity for journalists to do their job in the first place, such as connecting with sources, conducting research and publishing articles. However in many countries, this might not be as blatant. For example, Russia has been blocking independent media websites and blogs, effectively silencing independent reporting. “In order to be able to defend human rights on the internet and to be able to ensure that our human rights are actually protected in this online world, it is necessary to be able to have transparency of any controls that are implemented,” says Xynou.

She goes on to explain that prior to the new wave of dedicated tools and organisations committed to measuring and publishing internet shutdowns, reports were mostly anecdotal. “There are so many reasons why services may be inaccessible, which may have nothing to do with intentional government censorship,” she says. “So distinguishing accidental accessibility versus intentional government blocking is actually a difficult problem, and it’s definitely not something that is obvious to a normal internet user.”

Xynou explains that measuring tools are so key because governments who have purposefully turned off internet access can seek plausible deniability, making it more difficult for journalists to hold them to account. “If there's no data that can serve as evidence that they intentionally blocked the service, governments can deny it,” says Xynou. This is why it’s crucial for data journalists to be involved in the reporting of shutdowns. Only with data, can journalists prove there is a government-instigated shutdown happening and not only report on the shutdown, but also use these shutdowns as a starting point for further stories. “For example, in countries where LGBTQ websites are blocked, there is likely little transparency or public debate about that in the country, because LGBTQ rights are not recognised or not really protected,” says Xynou. “But having the data that can serve as evidence about exactly which specific LGBTQ communities are being affected.” She explains that this is important because coverage of internet censorship often only focuses on when major social platforms - like WhatsApp or Facebook - get blocked, because they have such a huge user base.

But the biggest risks are when platforms that serve marginalised communities get blocked - which often go unnoticed. “Platforms run by and for marginalised communities are at higher risk of being censored but it's not easy for these cases to receive attention and reporting,” says Xynou. “It is these sorts of cases that you can uncover and report on through censorship measurements.”

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Understanding and measuring shutdowns, blocks and censorship

There are many ways for people to push back against internet blackouts and network disruptions, but journalists first need to begin to understand them in order to report on them. Because the internet is a network of networks - not a single one - there are many ways in which a shutdown can occur. In order to understand internet shutdowns, it’s important to first understand how the internet works in order to know how to measure it. “The internet was not made to be measured,” says Amanda Meng, Research Scientist at Georgia Tech. “I think that context is really helpful for people just to understand the kind of hairiness or complexity to it in the first instance.”

Meng is part of the research group for IODA (Internet Outage Detection and Analysis), a research group and tool that monitors Internet outages in near-real time. Her colleague, Zachary Bischof, a research scientist whose work focuses on geolocating and mapping internet outages, explains that even within these tools, it can be difficult to be specific, which is why getting the data is just the first step.

“[Regarding Ukraine], if there's damage to some infrastructure, we can say, oh, that connectivity is reduced to say 50% or something. That's a partial outage, but then it might level off there, and then maybe there's another drop later,” says Bischoff. He explains that it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint exactly when an outage has begun and stopped, or define whether it was government imposed or not, which is why journalists need to verify the information from other sources, too.

But there are ways to anticipate outages during certain events where governments may impose a shutdown. Shutdowns often happen during five types of events:

-Mass demonstrations -Military operations and coups -Elections -Communal violence -Religious holidays -School exams

All of these event types are incidents where governments want to restrict the flow of information, the ability to organise and freedom of speech.

There are many types of internet blocks (and depending on where you look they can be defined differently), but generally, there are 3 main forms of internet blocking:

  • Full, blanket shutdown This is where governments have used the ‘kill switch’ to shut off all access to the internet in a country or region. This is the most drastic of tactics and can happen by completely shutting off network services, though the process is complicated. In cases like these, VPNs and other tools used to circumvent internet blocks cannot be used.

  • Platform-specific blocking Often known as partial shutdowns, platform-blocking often targets specific sites and apps while the rest of the internet is fine to use. Often, these are usually social media apps (like Instagram, Telegram, WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook) that governments want to close off to derail people from sharing content and organising.

  • Bandwidth throttling The deliberate slowing down of the internet so much it becomes unusable. Because bandwidth is defined as ‘the maximum amount of data transmitted over an internet connection in a given amount of time’,connections with higher bandwidths can send data faster than those with lower bandwidth. Bandwidth throttling is when the amount of data that can be sent is being limited, making the sending and receiving of data at very low speeds, particularly multimedia data such as photographs and videos that are usually wanting to be shared or live streamed at protests, for example. This can be instigated through Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Access Now has a handy report on the taxonomy behind network interference.

But there are so many other ways in which governments can create internet blocks of which are much more subtle and harder to verify:

  • Mobile Data Shutoff This is when governments shut off mobile data so the internet cannot be accessed with portable devices. This is a common tactic for countries where people earn low-incomes and access to computers is limited but smartphone ownership is common. This often helps achieve a complete shutdown without the complications of killing the switch.

  • DNS Interference When governments try to derail specific websites, the domain name system (DNS) that you are trying to access either goes to the wrong site or shows an error message.

  • Denial of Service This is when governments send so many requests to specific websites or apps so that it slows down or crashes. VPNs requesting from another country may work in this case.

  • IP Blocking Devices and servers connected to the internet have unique keys called IP Addresses. Internet Service Providers can use these IP addresses to very precisely shut them down in specific regions, whilst others remain intact.

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Identifying and verifying shutdowns

But how can journalists verify a shutdown is government-instigated? And where should they start if they suspect an internet block is taking place? There are some key online tools, dashboards and organisations that track and measure a shutdown to collect and publish it.

Here are just a few:

Launched in 2017, The Icarus Project is a technical research laboratory dedicated for testing, analysing, documenting, and developing Internet censorship circumvention solutions. The project collects as many techniques as possible and documents them in step-by-step guides. The project is currently documenting censorship circumvention techniques in the Egyptian context for broader access.

Access Now is a non-profit organisation founded in 2009 with a mission to defend and extend the digital civil rights of people, providing an index of internet shutdowns around the world.

Their tools, called the OONI Probe, allows users to measure internet blockages and online censorship in their area. The OONI Explorer dashboard showcases the OONI Measurement Aggregation Toolkit (MAT) and is a huge, regularly updated dataset showing internet blockages.

IODA (Internet Outage Detection and Analysis) is a project from the Georgia Institute of Technology. It is a prototype system that monitors Internet outages in near-real time. Launched in 2011 by Alberto Dainotti as a way to measure the shutdowns in Egypt and Libya during the Arab Spring. It is a usable tool but also a research project.

An internet censorship observatory
A censorship measurement platform that collects data using multiple remote measurement techniques in more than 200 countries. Their methods mean they don’t have to rely on accessible vantage points or volunteers in different countries, ‘surpassing scale, coverage, continuity, and safety limitations’.

Launched in 2010, the Google Transparency Report shares data on the actions of governments and corporations affecting privacy, security, and access to information online. They log the number of visits to every Google product in real-time, along with an approximation of the geographic region where the visit originated. This means that journalists and other users can check a decrease in traffic in a specific region, which may mean that users there cannot access a product or service. They also publish reports on content removals and requests from governments around the world.

Reporting during a shutdown

Internet shutdowns can happen anywhere, and are not unheard of in the western world either. The first known instance of a government-instigated internet outage in the US happened on August 11, 2011 during the protest of a police shooting of an unarmed passenger. The government agency in charge of San Francisco’s subway system, shut down mobile service at four stations to suppress the protests.

But what is it like to report during a shutdown? In 2021, India had the world’s highest number of internet shutdowns for four years straight, with a particularly dangerous shutdown during the coronavirus pandemic. Safina Nabi, a freelance multimedia journalist based in the Indian part of Kashmir, explains what it was like to report from there during an internet shutdown by the Indian government over several months from August 4, 2019 to March 4, 2020 in what was deemed ‘the longest internet shutdown on record in a democracy’.

“I was among few women journalists on ground who were reporting and it was really difficult because initially we didn't know what was happening,” says Nabi. “Nothing was working.” There was also no transportation, so Nabi and other journalists at the time would walk to their sources, colleagues to report.

Then shutdown was a response to anticipated unrest from a decision by India to revoke the special status of its portion of Kashmir, known as Jammu and Kashmir and fully integrate its only Muslim-majority region with the rest of the country. The initial shutdown was not just limited to the internet but mobile phone networks, landlines, cable and television channels. For 72 days, the people in India Kashmir were completely disconnected from all communications (telephone lines were reinstated again).

The internet was later turned on, but at such slow speeds and with limited access. It was only until February 5, 2021, when 4G mobile data services were reinstated. Before then, many journalists were making weekly trips to their offices in Delhi to deliver their reports. But as a freelance journalist, Nabi did not have the resources to fly to Delhi each week to hand in her stories. She would visit the airport in Kashmir, try to find someone travelling out, hand them a USB drive with her stories and request that they email the documents on it once they land in a place connected to the internet. “It was not easy, but there were lots of strangers willing to help each other,” says Nabi. “It’s not like they were putting a communication bar on me - they were putting a communication bar on 4 million people, and those 4 million people were against India and India's concept of democracy.”

After some weeks, international pressure meant that some communications were reinstated. A media centre was later opened, with - according to Nabi - five or six desktop computers running on a 2G network serving approximately 300 journalists, of which Nabi was just one of around eight women journalists. It was crowded, and each journalist usually only had a 10 minute window to use the computer and the internet to submit their stories. “Journalists would wait in line for hours,” says Nabi.

Despite 2G internet connections being reinstated, connection generally was very slow, so citizens started using VPNs (virtual private networks) as all the major social media sites were blocked. “Once the government authorities were using VPNs to share their feelings, they announced that anybody who is using a VPN will be jailed for six months straight without bail.” In Iran, citizens have been using tools such as Snowflake - a Google Chrome extension that lets users bypass censorship.

The shutdown in Kashmir also coincided with the coronavirus crisis, which heavily relied on internet communications about the disease. “We were pushed into a black hole where we had no access to information. Information that could have saved you or killed you,” says Nabi. “As journalists we have to advocate for internet access. When the government shuts down the internet, they are shutting down a person's basic human right to reach out to another person.”

Collaboration and educating citizens

More and more, we are also seeing shutdowns spill over borders, which inevitably require journalists to lean on their colleagues in neighbouring countries which can be a great way to collaborate and verify stories.

Shutdowns can also spread, showing that the actions of one country often don’t just cause impact there. Global interconnectedness means that internet shutdowns can have huge ripple effects in all areas of life.

Access Now published a guide to the countries that hit the kill switch most often in 2021 as well as an annual Election Watch. Considering that shutdowns are becoming an increasingly common tactic for governments, journalists reporting on and in these countries need to understand how they work and how they will be key to their reporting in 2023.

But should journalists offer more ways for citizens to understand internet shutdowns? “I think journalists play a very, very critical role in informing the public about internet censorship and increasing awareness that this is an issue that almost every country in the world experiences,” says Xynou. She explains that internet shutdowns and censorship also changes over time, not only in how the blocks are implemented but who the blocks impact, too. “That governments around the world have the ability to censor and control what is accessed on the internet in itself is concerning, because in order to ensure that what they're censoring doesn't impact human rights and doesn't impact independent journalism, there needs to be transparency.”

Xynou believes it’s key that journalists stay on top of what is being censored and relay that to the public, because many blocks - particularly those that impact vulnerable communities - are often completely missed.” The internet is part of our world, so I believe it is a journalist's responsibility to monitor what governments control on the internet, just as they feel that they have to have responsibility to monitor how governments exercise control of society.”

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