Around the world, governments are hitting on a modish new idea: Turn the internet off. Sometimes they mean it literally.
Methods vary, but the trend is clear enough. Countries are increasingly ordering telecoms and other companies to block network access, shut down messaging services, or otherwise restrict digital applications or websites, usually citing public order or national-security concerns. In extreme cases, internet access can be “blacked out” entirely. Worldwide, such shutdowns rose to 188 last year, up from 75 in 2016.
Expect that regrettable figure to rise. For autocrats, the appeal is obvious. They can use such restrictions to suppress inconvenient news or unwanted opinions, censor political rivals, prevent activists from organizing, and stifle talk of government misdeeds. For instance, after voters cast ballots last year in an election widely seen as corrupt, the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo blocked all internet access for nearly three weeks. The stated goal — which cost the impoverished country roughly US$3 million a day, according to one calculation — was to prevent “chaos.”
Even in democracies, such bans can be tempting. When terrorists killed more than 250 people in Sri Lanka in April, authorities shut down access to multiple social-media services for more than a week. That might have seemed justified in the moment: Messaging apps can accelerate the spread of disinformation, and further violence appeared imminent.