Felicia Anthonio: You were in the middle of completing your university application online, excited to be making the next big step in your life. Just when you were about to hit submit, the Internet suddenly went off. At the time, your mother told you not to worry. There was still a week left before the application deadline. But that week passed quickly, along with a deadline, and the Internet remained off. No one knew for how much longer it would last.
You thought that missing your chance to apply for university would be the worst thing to happen due to the shutdown. But looking back now, more than three months into the shutdown, you realize that was only the beginning. There were a lot of unintended side-effects of the Internet shutdown that neither you nor anyone else saw coming at first.
In this six-part series, we want to highlight the troubling rise of a new form of antidemocratic oppression spreading across the world: government-created Internet shutdowns. We will be hearing from journalists, activists, and experts who have been fighting to keep the Internet on, all the way from the high court of Sudan to the rural regions of Pakistan.
In this episode we take a look at what it is like to live through an Internet shutdown. We talk to people about how these shutdowns impact their lives in small and an expected manners, as well as in profound life-changing ways. But in places where the Internet is still being blocked, it isn’t so easy for people to get these stories out.
One of these stories comes from Cox’s Bazar Refugee Camp in Bangladesh. Cox’s Bazar Refugee Camp was established in 2017 when Rohingya people started fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh, trying to escape the discrimination and genocidal practices they faced in their home country. This mass human exodus resulted in the world’s largest refugee camp, consisting of over 900,000 displaced refugees.
Ro Sawyeddollah: My name is Ro Sawyeddollah. I’m 18 years old. I’m living here as a forcibly-displaced Myanmar national and I work here for the peace and the human rights of my community by founding a group of students named Rohingya Student’s Network.
Anthonio: Ro is a student and activists currently sheltering in the Cox’s Bazar Refugee Camp. He learned to speak English through the Internet, or as he calls it, “Google University.” To participate in this podcast, Ro has been sending us covert WhatsApp voice notes messages despite the ban on mobile Internet access.
Sawyeddollah: I’m recording this voice note from a shelter in Camp 15. Now it’s almost one year since September 2019 the government banned the accessibility of Internet connection in the camp. Now it is impossible to use Internet here in the camp. We can’t even communicate well by direct phone call everywhere in the camp, as the frequency of the network connection in the camp is weaker than 2G. But I still have a very secret and difficult way of using Internet and I don’t want to tell about that way as I’m scared and I want to use it for fighting for the peace and the human rights of the people of my community continuously.
Anthonio: Since late 2019, the government of Bangladesh has cut off Internet access to Cox’s Bazar and blocked refugees from obtaining SIM cards.
Sawyeddollah: Hello. The mobile phones of many Rohingya people were taken by the authorities by saying Rohingya people are not allowed to use mobile phones. And according to the foreign minister of Bangladesh, they believe that Internet restriction is necessary for safety and the security of the Rohingya and the host community. Many of the Rohingya youth cannot [indistinct] education online, as we haven’t a right to education here in the camp, too. But now even learning from online became impossible for the Rohingya youth because of not having Internet.
Anthonio: Ro told us that when they arrived, they where grateful today Bangladeshi government for giving them shelter. They were in no position to demand Internet accessibility. But then, COVID-19 happened. Due to the Internet restrictions enforced by the government, aid workers and camp staff are unable to efficiently inform camp residents about the virus.
Sawyeddollah: Now lifting the Internet restriction is very critical for both [calls?] to stop also from being the victims of human trafficking as well as to fight against the pandemic COVID-19. Once we can have enough information related to the COVID-19 our people could prevent themselves from this pandemic. There is a Rohingya medic team doing regular awareness sessions in Rohingya language through social media. Once our people can [have] access to it, we can learn so much to prevent ourselves from this pandemic.
Anthonio: The first coronavirus case in Cox’s Bazar was recorded on March 24, 2020. Ro worries that the rate of coronavirus deaths in the Rohingya camps may become the highest in the world, and no one would really know about it.
Sawyeddollah: I think definitely I will be affected by COVID-19 soon. I’m sure every Rohingya living in the camp will be affected by COVID-19 if the situation of the camp remains continuously as now. So far I know it is not only the problem of Rohingya people, it is a human [measure?]. Every country, every community is facing this problem as well. But this problem is very dangerous for Rohingya people as we are living in a very overcrowded area.
Anthonio: Ro and other youths are doing everything they can to provide information about coronavirus to the people in the camps.
Sawyeddollah: We are giving our full [competence?] to educate people how to prevent COVID-19. But bad luck, we haven’t ability to reach all the people due to not having a faster Internet connection in the camp. Sometimes I see a youth worker also educating Rohingya people to prevent COVID-19, but I’m sorry to say that the way they are using it is useless, too. So I’m requesting them to investigate a quick procedure where they can cover all the people with great motivation.
Anthonio: Ro is also taking action in the limited capacity that he’s able to. Simply by speaking to us, getting this story out into the world, Ro is refusing to be silenced by the shutdown.
Sawyeddollah: We sent an open letter to the prime minister of Bangladesh in 15 May 2020. We explained there in the letter how and why Internet is important to us. We also requested there to end the Internet restriction in camp. But we still do not get any response of our letters, so with all of your support, empathy, and humanity I’m again humbly requesting to the [indistinct] of Bangladesh, please lift the Internet restriction in refugee camps. Thank you very much.
Anthonio: Mambe Churchill lives and works in Cameroon. He is one of the country’s most promising young tech entrepreneurs. He’s also completely self-taught. Access to the Internet as a teenager enabled him to learn how to become a software engineer.
Mambe Churchill Nanje: I started getting into the tech business when I was 19. I started as an instructor at the local technology institute here in 2004. And that’s where my journey started, and two years later I founded my first company which was a technology consulting business.
Anthonio: A few years into his first business, Churchill was confronted by one of the biggest problems of the Cameroonian tech industry.
Nanje: I realized there was a lack of talent and also the attrition rate of technical talent—even when you train them, because back then we had to train the people we worked with because the local schools were not producing the kind of engineers that were required.
Anthonio: But for innovators like Churchill, problems like these can also be viewed as potential business opportunities.
Nanje: I went online because I felt there should be a solution. And I didn’t find anything. I didn’t find any database, I didn’t find any platform like that. So this pushed me to build what everybody now knows to be njorku.com. So Njorku is an Internet company that seeks to aggregate all the human capital-related information in Africa and make it easily accessible, just like a Google for jobs in Africa and equipment and all that.
Anthonio: Churchill’s optimistic and eager self-starter attitude reflects the rise of African technology in recent years. There is a sweeping tech movement across the continent, with Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa becoming leading tech hubs. So too has Churchill’s home town in Cameroon become a hotspot for startups, earning the nickname Silicon Mountain due to its location in the mountainous region of the country.
Nanje: Yeah, it’s a small town. We are on the foot of the mountain, so we are elevated very like…I don’t know how far up above sea level but yeah, it’s cold here, it’s calm. It has about 300,000 people, and about 60,000 of them are students.
Anthonio: These local students and young graduates are all hungry for the opportunities that Africa’s tech movement is offering.
Nanje: So yeah, there are a lot of young people here that are constantly learning new things, trying new things, starting their own companies or learning skills and working for companies that’re trying to make money online. Cell technology and all of that, yeah.
Anthonio: Churchill explains that it is also due to the rise of the Internet, especially the growing availability of affordable mobile Internet connection. Thus Buea has become a hub of innovation.
Nanje: It pushed us to get on the Internet and try to figure out how this thing worked. The good thing is the Internet had a lot of data, information knowledge that we could learn, and then we learned and we started building these technologies around on here. And we ended up building an ecosystem where young people are helping each other to learn how to build technology. To build technology, and to sell technology and grow together.
Anthonio: Then one day, amidst all this growth, exchange of ideas, and new economic activity, the Internet was switched off.
Nanje: I was home talking to a university in Germany on my phone, a video call, and it was like 5:00 PM and the call got disconnected. I thought it was the Internet. So I went back, I restarted my modem connection. But the call continued and like five minutes later I got disconnected again and that was it.
Anthonio: Protests began in 2016 after the government appointed Francophone judges in the English-speaking regions of the country. At first, it was the lawyers leading the protest. Then the teachers joined them. Then the rest of Anglophone Cameroon. The government responded to these protests by sending security forces to the region. Within weeks, more than a hundred people had reportedly been arrested. Six were reported dead.
Then in 2017, Anglophone separatists declared independence from the national government. The government again responded with force, resulting in more deaths and the arrest of political leaders of the separatist movements To prevent further coordination of protest, the government decided to flip the kill switch in January 2017.
Nanje: This I remember very well because it’s traumatizing for me. It made me feel like my whole world, all the hard work I’d put in for over a decade was crashing. My staff are all in Buea. My business depends on the Internet. This investor was coming on board. And then, I had some clients abroad and we had to deliver within a couple of days. So I had to just stay home for two days just trying to figure out what to do next.
Anthonio: No one knew just when the Internet would be restored.
Nanje: It just…it was… It came off like it’s indefinite. Which meant I had to leave Buea and go to Douala, which is very very…not so conducive to startups. It’s like five times more expensive to run a startup in Douala than to run it in Buea. And I had to move to Douala—I thought it would be like a week, or two. If they’d announced they were going to shut it down for five months, I would’ve moved to Douala, maybe rent an apartment and move my offices there.
Anthonio: The shutdown lasted more than 200 days.
Nanje: So yeah, we lost a lot of human and financial capital. Yeah, but at the same time we had to survive, so all of this made me feel like all of my plans have gone to the drain with just one switch. Yeah. So I need to rethink and I need to… And it was a very difficult and confusing situation. Yeah.
Anthonio: For many businesses, especially for enterprise and ecommerce companies, or tech startups, the loss of connection meant that they had to go into survival mode, or even shut their doors and lay off employees.
Nanje: I just knew that okay, they’re not announcing the Internet is coming. I don’t know what they mean by they’re supporting the digital ecosystem and then they shut down the Internet in the biggest digital hub. Yeah, it’s very…when I was in Douala, I was focused on surviving. Keep serving my clients. Keep on running the business. Keep adapting and keep moving.
Anthonio: The shutdown paralyzed one of Africa’s most active centers of innovation. The effects were still rippling through Buea long after the shutdown ended.
Nanje: Looking back now, that Internet shutdown and the crisis has really affected business around here, especially talent-based businesses like ours. You know in technology, the key aspects is talent. The company that wins is the one that has the most talent, because you have to build the best software solution. We lost a lot of great minds. Most of them went to Silicon Valley. Others went to Douala and Yaoundé, but most of them went to Silicon Valley because of course companies are looking to diversify their workforce in Silicon Valley, and most of these guys had been doing international code challenges. But now with this shutdown and crisis, it made the decision easy for them. So they just took the next available flight and moved to the US.
Our companies had to struggle, but the good thing is most of the founders here are technical. Which means even when it gets to the worst-case scenario, they can operate as a one-man business consultant. Which is why we are resilient. Like most of the things we do in my company I can do all of them because I’m a technical founder.
Anthonio: Entrepreneurs like Churchill got where the are by being innovative, inventive, and most importantly resilient. When a shutdown occurs, people like Churchill do not sit still and just let it happen to them.
Nanje: So at some point three months in, myself and Valery Colong of ActivSpaces, we decided to go to a village on the highway where the Internet starts. Like when you’re driving and you’re on your phone, there’s no Internet. At a certain point, the Internet comes. So you know where it starts. And it’s a small village on the highway to Douala. We went there, and we rented an new office, set up a space there, and then we would just drive every money for forty minutes, go there, work and come back. So, we pretty much adapted to it, yeah.
Anthonio: In the international press, Churchill and his peers became known as the Internet’s Refugees.
Nanje: We would just drive every morning, go there and work the whole day then drive back home. So we adapted and we continued to serve our clients, which is the core and the key to business.
Anthonio: Churchill now looks back at that time as just yet another struggle in the life of a startup founder. He refuses to be made a victim.
Nanje: You know, the [indistinct] is entrepreneurship. It means risk-bearing, because entreprendre is a French word. (We’re lucky that Cameroon is French and English-speaking.) So entreprendre is a French word which means to take risk. To be an entrepreneur means you always have to take risks and you always have to adapt and you have to always find a way to keep going, because there is always a way forward.
Anthonio: In episode one of Kill Switch, we heard from Mishi, who works with Software Freedom Law Center in India, about the extensive Internet shutdowns being ordered by the Indian government. In 2019, they perpetrated 121 out of 213 Internet shutdowns recorded by Access Now. But those living in the capital city of New Delhi rarely experience these shutdowns. We talked to Devdutta, a lawyer and digital rights activist living in the capital city.
Devdutta Mukhopadhyay: My name is Devdutta Mukhopadhyay. That’s quite a mouthful, so you can just call me Dev. I’m a lawyer based in New Delhi. I work at a digital rights nonprofit organization called the Internet Freedom Foundation.
Anthonio: The Internet Freedom Foundation is an advocacy organization that focuses both on government engagements as well as public-facing interventions around digital rights violations and Internet shutdowns.
Mukhopadhyay: Our advocacy around Internet shutdowns dates back to 2018 when we launched a public campaign to which over 16,000 Indians supported a petition to the prime minister of India calling for an overhaul of India’s Internet shutdown laws.
Anthonio: Dev explains that thought India has had record-breaking shutdowns in recent years, these rarely happen in the capital city.
Mukhopadhyay: Delhi is not a very easy place for the government to impose Internet shutdowns in. It’s easier to impose more prolonged shutdowns in border states or slightly more far-flung parts of the country which are more remote and there isn’t that much media scrutiny or attention by the international community.
Anthonio: While she can only recall a shutdown of a few hours ever happening in New Delhi itself, in other parts of the country the Internet has been off for a much longer time.
Mukhopadhyay: And that’s the Internet shutdown which is currently ongoing in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is on the verge of crossing one year on the 5th of August of this year. These Internet restrictions were first imposed in Jammu and Kashmir on 5th of August of 2019. And at that time, a complete communication shutdown was imposed and the government cut off even regular phone calls, SMS services, and landline services.
Anthonio: After multiple rounds of litigation, the government finally reinstated partial Internet access. This came in the form of unblocked 2G mobile connection.
Mukhopadhyay: I mean they honestly— In 2020 2G Internet speed can’t be considered effective Internet access because it does not support video conferencing and so many other facilities.
Anthonio: Video calling has become an essential healthcare tool in the region, especially during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Dev and her colleagues found out how devastating these shutdowns and slowdowns are through testimonies by doctors from the region.
Mukhopadhyay: I think there are two major ways in which Internet restrictions have impacted healthcare workers, based on these conversations that we’ve had with actual doctors who are living and working during an Internet shutdown in a pandemic.
First is that healthcare cannot be provided through telemedicine if there is an Internet shutdown or an Internet slowdown also. Because at 2G speed, you can’t really see and treat patients because there’s no possibility of video conferencing. During the COVID-19 pandemic especially, telemedicine has become crucial because hospitals are now these hotbeds of infection, and they are way stretched over capacity.
Anthonio: Telemedicine refers to the practice of caring for patients remotely through conference calling applications. This new practice has not only made healthcare more accessible and affordable to people living in remote regions, but in recent months has also help health workers to consult with patients who are self-isolating or who have been turned away by overcrowded hospitals.
Mukhopadhyay: The doctors in Jammu and Kashmir have told us that they cannot switch to telemedicine because 2G Internet cannot support video conferencing, and they cannot diagnose a patient without visually examining them.
So for instance one doctor talked about how patients come to him and say things like, “You’re a doctor. I have pain in my tummy.” But the abdominal cavity has so many different organs, and the patients are unable to pinpoint exactly where they’re having pain or discomfort. And that’s why it’s so important for the doctor to be able to video conference with their patients.
Anthonio: Slow or non-existent Internet connection also prevents doctors from accessing information they need to effectively treat their patients.
Mukhopadhyay: Another major problem the doctors have talked about is that they’re unable to access latest information about treatment protocols for COVID and also various other diseases because of slow Internet speed. So, what ends up happening is that you have doctors who are trying to you know, treat a very large number of patients in the middle of a pandemic and they’re forced to waste hours trying to download life-saving information like ICU guidelines.
Anthonio: When it comes to healthcare, time matters. It can be the difference between life and death.
Mukhopadhyay: Another heartbreaking story which has stayed with me is of a young pregnant woman in Srinagar who lost her baby because junior doctors in the hospital could not contact the senior gynecologist when the baby’s heartbeat dropped. This happened sometime in August of last year when even phone calls were blocked, and I think it makes you realize how we will never really know how many of these completely avoidable tragedies have been caused by telecommunication shutdowns.
Anthonio: The Internet Freedom Foundation, where Dev works, tries to ensure that Indian citizens can use the Internet freely, as a liberty guaranteed by the constitution. This liberty is not only to ensure freedom of speech but also other human rights impacted by a lack of Internet access.
Mukhopadhyay: I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that people think the Internet is only a medium for exercising your right to freedom of speech and expression. But that’s simply not true in the modern age. We conduct our business over the Internet now. We teach students over the Internet. We provide healthcare over the Internet. So all of these other fundamental human rights are also now intrinsically tied to having access to the Internet.
Anthonio: The shutdown in India might not be happening in the capital city of Delhi all the time. But they are also not only concentrated in Jammu and Kashmir. They happen from Rajasthan in the west, all the way to West Bengal in the east.
Mukhopadhyay: I think in the long term, a strategy like Internet shutdowns is not good for any democracy. Because even if it’s happening in states which may be you know, geopolitically sensitive, they may be border states, there may be national security implications, etc., what happens when you punish an entire society for maybe the misdeeds of a few bad apples is that you also cause a lot of resentment and anger among the younger people in that society. In fact, I don’t know if Internet shutdowns even serve their intended goal of preventing violence because there are empirical studies which demonstrate that Internet shutdowns actually incentivize those forms of violent protest which require less communication and coordination than peaceful demonstrations. So as a whole it seems to me that Internet shutdowns are quite counterproductive as a strategy both in the short term and the long term.
Anthonio: Part of the reason the Keep It On coalition is doing this podcast is to shine a light on these blackouts and allow those affected to tell their stories. But perhaps no one gets frustrated more by an Internet blackout than journalists. After all, it’s their job to report on what’s happening to as wide an audience as possible.
Ruth Gbatoe: Okay, so my name is Ruth Gbatoe and I work with the Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding as program assistant.
Anthonio: Ruth’s focus is on advocating for the safety of journalists and promoting free media in a peaceful and democratic society. She’s recording from the busy offices of the Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding in central Monrovia, Liberia. Which is why you might hear a lot of bustle and even some office music going on in the background.
Gbatoe: We promote freedom of expression, good governance, and we train journalists and community-based organizations. We carry out capacity building and we report as well, and document attacks on journalists and also on rights activists.
Anthonio: In June 2019, Liberia experienced its first formal Internet shutdown after a group called the Council of Patriots, consisting of citizens, activists, opposition politicians, and students, organized a peaceful protest. For the duration of their protest, authorities in Liberia decided to block all social media access, focusing on sites like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter.
Gbatoe: And at the shutdown, me and other journalists, we couldn’t run our web site, our Facebook pages, and other accounts that we have.
Anthonio: What makes social media so powerful is that it allows information to be instantly communicated and shared. The results of a shutdown can thus be very impactful if it is done at the perfect moment. In Liberia, people around the country could not view or follow the protest nor, as in Ruth’s case, could journalists report on it as it was happening.
Gbatoe: It also affected our followers on mainly Facebook because the media outlets that do Facebook Live about events that are occurring in Liberia. So, they now have access to the Facebook platform to do that and that greatly affected them. It also affected those that have content, articles, and have web sites. They couldn’t get these published as well. It was more like people couldn’t access information because we were denied a platform to do that.
Anthonio: Internet access is especially important for the Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding because they work with regional and international partners.
Gbatoe: Yes, we also rely greatly on the Internet for everything that we do, including publication of alerts. Send our alert to IFEX. Also send our alert to Media Foundation for West Africa. And we share with small media. I’ll have it published on our Twitter account, on our web site, on our Facebook pages.
Anthonio: As we heard in episode one of this series, a shutdown becomes even more successful when people do not realize that it is actually happening.
Gbatoe: Personally, I didn’t really notice that. I just felt it was some of these regular breaks in connectivity. After I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about the poor Internet, a few others who had already downloaded VPN, I was like…it was new to me.
Anthonio: For Ruth, this shutdown was totally unexpected and different.
Gbatoe: And I was shocked. Because I couldn’t follow what was ongoing, I couldn’t do anything, you know? Yeah, at my office I manage the social media accounts, including the web site. So I had a story I had to publish on our web site but that was impossible. And also one of the means that I communicate with colleagues in our office here is through WhatsApp. So I tried getting through, and it was impossible.
Anthonio: Journalists in Liberia are learning to adapt. This social media shutdown has shown them that the government can flip the kill switch whenever they want.
Gbatoe: We don’t [indistinct] what will happen tomorrow. So what I foresee here, it might be repeated. It is really worrisome for media freedom. Set apart from Internet or the blackout on social media, there are also other attacks on the traditional media here.
Anthonio: The social media shutdown in 2019 was a worrying new threat to media freedom and the liberties of journalists in the region. But fear of future shutdowns or censorship can’t keep Ruth and her colleagues from reporting stories and fighting for media freedom in the region.
Gbatoe: Right now, um… What I’ll say like, anything is possible but, we just have to record the facts? I mean, there are other areas, there are other institutions that have been reporting about government attacks and they’ll go after them. But we have tried as a media development institution to reports the facts.
Anthonio: Take a second to imagine your day without Internet connection. I am sure that you will be able to survive. You might even enjoy the break from social media and freedom from all those emails that you need to respond to.
Now imagine the rest of your week with absolutely no Internet connection. What about the rest of your month? Many of us take the little things for granted. The daily messages from loved ones. The enjoyment we get from videos, music, or podcasts. But we also take for granted that our education, our businesses, and our jobs all rely on some level of Internet connection. I also work remotely, and if an Internet shutdown happens in Ghana, I would not be able to communicate with my colleagues from around the world.
When an Internet shutdown happens, people don’t give in or give up. In the next episode of Kill Switch, we find out how to circumvent an Internet shutdown, and hear stories about people finding new, innovative ways to get back online.
For more information about how to support the KeepItOn coalition and our work, visit our web site, www.accessnow.org. This podcast was produced by Access Now and Volume, with funding support from Internews. Our music is by Oman Morí. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and share as widely as possible to help the fight against Internet shutdowns. I am your host Felicia Anthonio, and you have been listening to Kill Switch. Goodbye, and remember to Keep It On.