Felicia Anthonio: You des­per­ate­ly shoot off mes­sages on your phone to find out what is hap­pen­ing. But none of the mes­sages are going through any­more. Your Twitter feed is not refresh­ing. Even when you open your lap­top and decide to try from there, it is use­less. Your com­put­er does not want to con­nect. Even this pod­cast you’re lis­ten­ing to right now stops stream­ing suddenly. 

No news is com­ing through. There is no way to find out what’s going on in the streets of the cap­i­tal, where protests erupt­ed a few days ear­li­er. You knock on your neigh­bor’s door and ask them if they know what is hap­pen­ing. Have they got­ten any news? They can’t get online either. 

You real­ize that the Internet is not down. It has been shut down all, across the coun­try. No one will be able to see or hear what’s hap­pen­ing as they start crack­ing down on the pro­test­ers, bru­tal­iz­ing them with batons, and maybe even using live ammu­ni­tion this time. The gov­ern­ment has flipped the kill switch. 

Welcome to Kill Switch, a pod­cast series brought to you by Access Now, the KeepItOn coali­tion, co-sponsored by Internews, and pro­duced by Volume. I am your host Felicia Anthonio. 

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. 

This first episode takes a look at the ongo­ing Internet shut­downs around the world and their impact on human rights. We are launch­ing this pod­cast on the 27th of July 2020 at the open­ing of RightsCon, the world’s lead­ing event on human rights in the dig­i­tal age, which will be host­ed entire­ly online for the first time this year. 

As we are record­ing this first episode, Africa’s sec­ond most-populated coun­try, Ethiopia, has been cut off from the Internet for over three weeks. Even though the gov­ern­ment recent­ly restored access to broad­band con­nec­tions, there is still no mobile Internet, a source of con­nec­tion on which most peo­ple in the coun­try rely on for Internet access. Berhan Taye, who works as the Global Internet Shutdowns Lead at Access Now with me, has kept her eyes on the shutdown. 

Berhan Taye: It’s been almost three weeks since Ethiopia shut down the Internet, and this time around the Internet was shut down because of some vio­lent inci­dents that hap­pened in Addis and in oth­er places. So a very promi­nent a very promi­nent and polit­i­cal and social activist musi­cian was shot and killed in Addis.

Anthonio: It was a rumor say­ing that an activist, Hachalu Hundessa, who was shot dead on the 9th of June 2019 by an uniden­ti­fied assailant. This sparked nation­wide protests.

Taye: It’s been chaot­ic since then. So it’s esti­mat­ed that the gov­ern­ment has arrest­ed around 4,900 peo­ple, so far. Over 160 peo­ple have died but that’s just a num­ber the gov­ern­ment has admit­ted. So we’re yet to see the actu­al real­i­ty on the ground.

Anthonio: Part of our job at Access Now, an inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tion that works to defend and extend dig­i­tal rights of users at such risk glob­al­ly, is to keep track of shut­downs in India, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sudan, Cameroon, Togo, and dozens of oth­er coun­tries. But it is always dif­fi­cult to know what exact­ly is hap­pen­ing dur­ing these infor­ma­tion blackouts. 

Taye: So, when­ev­er a shut­down hap­pens it’s always extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to find infor­ma­tion, you know, to reach out to your fam­i­ly. It’s always very very dif­fi­cult to find actu­al infor­ma­tion as it hap­pens on the ground. So this time around, when Hachalu was killed it hap­pened at night, and in the morn­ing there were protests across the city. And all of a sud­den, almost the whole coun­try went off the grid. So there was lit­er­al­ly no traf­fic com­ing out of the coun­try and if it was it was through some satel­lite con­nec­tions. And for those of us that work in the human rights sec­tor, that work for civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions, and there are also Ethiopians liv­ing abroad, it was very dif­fi­cult to find any infor­ma­tion on the ground. 

Anthonio: For Berhan, her­self an Ethiopian cur­rent­ly liv­ing in Nairobi, this most recent shut­down hits close to home.

Taye: So we’ve heard you know, there were gun­shots. For instance I’ve heard there were gun­shots around my par­ents’ house. So Icouldn’t reach my par­ents, I could­n’t find out what was hap­pen­ing. And if you come at it from a civ­il soci­ety and human rights doc­u­men­ta­tion per­spec­tive, I think one of the rea­sons why we don’t know until today the extent of the vio­lence, the extent of the dam­age, the extent of the injuries and the casu­al­ties is actu­al­ly because the Internet went com­plete­ly off. In addi­tion to the Internet going com­plete­ly off, mobile net­works were com­plete­ly affected.

Anthonio: Ethiopia is just the lat­est coun­try in which the gov­ern­ment decid­ed to shut down the Internet. In 2019, Access Now record­ed over 213 par­tial or full Internet shut­downs. Some of these last­ed hours, and oth­ers last­ed months. If you have not heard about a dras­tic rise of Internet shut­downs around the world, it might be because these shut­downs are so suc­cess­ful in achiev­ing their goals. You could even say that one suc­cess­ful indi­ca­tor of an Internet shut­down is that nobody is able to talk about it. Here is a Berhan again. 

Taye: So basi­cal­ly what an Internet shut­down does is that it inten­tion­al­ly dis­rupts Internet or elec­tron­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion, with the intent to make them inac­ces­si­ble or effec­tive­ly unus­able for a spe­cif­ic pop­u­la­tion with­in a loca­tion, often to exert con­trol over the free flow of infor­ma­tion. We came up with this def­i­n­i­tion as Access Now, as the KeepItOn coali­tion, and with folks that have been mon­i­tor­ing and doc­u­ment­ing cen­sor­ship and Internet shutdowns. 

Anthonio: Governments around the world are switch­ing off the Internet when­ev­er they want. This is due to the rise of a new Information Age mech­a­nism of anti­de­mo­c­ra­t­ic oppres­sion, the kill switch. 

Taye: So if you look at how a shut­down is done or what it constitutes—so for instance you can shut down the Internet just for a spe­cif­ic region, for a spe­cif­ic neigh­bor­hoods, or for a spe­cif­ic city, or a whole block of a city. Or you can com­plete­ly shut it off for the whole coun­try. In Myanmar, in Ethiopia, in Bangladesh, this hap­pens a lot. You tar­get spe­cif­ic loca­tions and the rest of the coun­try will have Internet, but that spe­cif­ic loca­tion won’t have it. 

Anthonio: Full Internet shut­downs are often the result of a series of increas­ing­ly strict control.

Taye: You know, you don’t want the whole coun­try to go off the grid, but you don’t want peo­ple to have access to cer­tain web sites, or you want to slow down the Internet con­nec­tion so that peo­ple will be able to read text—you know, they’ll be able to get onto web sites. But they won’t be able to upload pic­tures, videos, or livestream. So this is what we nor­mal­ly call a slow­down or a throt­tling. And if there’s a protest hap­pen­ing and you’re livestream­ing exces­sive use of vio­lence by law enforce­ment agencies…and then the gov­ern­ments in most con­texts will just turn off 4G and 3G data. 

Anthonio: What that means is that you are left with a 2G net­work con­nec­tion. This is an Internet speed of less than 500 kilo­bytes per second. 

Taye: When you’re scrolling on Facebook, for instance, you’ll be able to see text but you won’t be able to see image. You won’t be able to upload videos. This is done delib­er­ate­ly, espe­cial­ly in con­texts where there’s protest hap­pen­ing. Governments want to con­trol the infor­ma­tion you share, and espe­cial­ly video and audio and images are what they’re try­ing to control. 

Anthonio: And then, you also get gov­ern­ments that decide to sim­ply block social media completely.

Taye: We always say there’s a dif­fer­ence between for instance block­ing the New York Times web site in com­par­i­son to Facebook for instance, because the fact that Facebook and oth­er social media plat­forms, even though they’re prob­lem­at­ic for many oth­er rea­sons, they still enable that two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion between users, which is real­ly real­ly impor­tant, right. Like so at a protest, I can be able to orga­nize using Facebook to say, Come. Let’s all meet at the square and this is the thing that we’re going to be protest­ing about today.”

Anthonio: This becomes a good indi­ca­tor of where and when the next full Internet shut­down will occur.

Taye: Especially in a protest and elec­tion con­texts they block social media, and then when peo­ple use VPNs to cir­cum­vent that social media block­ing, then they resort to shut­ting off the whole Internet. 

Anthonio: Berhan and I lead the KeepItOn cam­paign at Access Now, which unites over 220 orga­ni­za­tions across the world, work­ing to end Internet shut­downs globally.

Taye: Our sole man­date is to fight against Internet shut­downs and to stop Internet shut­downs. As we do that work of course, we pro­vide tech­ni­cal assis­tance to cir­cum­vent some forms of shut­downs, you know, social media block­ing. We doc­u­ment and iden­ti­fy inci­dents of Internet shut­downs around the world. And we also doc­u­ment what hap­pens when the Internet goes off. We’re see­ing more and more that Internet shut­downs and human rights vio­la­tions go hand in hand. So our main task is to make sure that Internet shut­downs don’t hap­pen. But if they do hap­pen, we can say we’ve been there, we’ve doc­u­ment­ed this, this is what we’ve seen, this is what has hap­pened when the Internet goes off. 

Anthonio: The sto­ries that we find, told to us by peo­ple liv­ing in affect­ed areas, often show the human cost of a shut­down. One of the sto­ries comes from that 2019 Internet shut­down in Sudan.

Taye: So the gov­ern­ment had shut down the Internet at some point. They shut down Facebook. So we were try­ing to doc­u­ment sto­ries. So this man goes to us and said, You know, when Facebook was was around,” he was like, it was much much eas­i­er to find dead bod­ies of fam­i­lies that we’ve lost.” And it’s so grue­some that he says, The morgues, because they were flood­ed with so many bod­ies that they would take pic­tures of the bod­ies and post it on Facebook and ask peo­ple, Is this your broth­er? Is this your sis­ter? Is this your moth­er? If you know this per­son their body is at this hospital.’ ” 

So he’s telling us that you know, because Facebook is blocked and because the morgues can’t do that he can’t find his broth­er. He can’t find his friends. That was one of the sto­ries where I was like you know, it’s not about even human rights vio­la­tions any­more. It’s about being able to bury your loved ones. I think that sto­ry real­ly stuck with me. 

Anthonio: The trend we are see­ing is wor­ry­ing. Shutdowns seem to be spread­ing across the globe. And the gov­ern­ments seem to grow increas­ing­ly com­fort­able with throw­ing the kill switch.

Taye: You know, 2020 we thought was going to be dif­fer­ent because of COVID. Governments you know, they might want their cit­i­zens to access free infor­ma­tion but that has not been the case. Governments like Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Togo, Burundi, Mali…[record­ing of Taye is fad­ed out]

Anthonio: The list goes on, and on, and on. 

India, the world’s most pop­u­lous democ­ra­cy, is also one of the major per­pe­tra­tors of Internet shut­downs glob­al­ly. With a stag­ger­ing 121 record­ed inci­dents of Internet shut­downs in 2019 alone, the Indian gov­ern­ment has a heavy hand on the kill switch.

Mishi Choudhary: My name is Mishi Choudhary. I am a lawyer with law prac­tice in New York and India. I am also the founder of Software Freedom Law Center India, which is an orga­ni­za­tion which works on the inter­sec­tion of law, tech­nol­o­gy, and policy.

Anthonio: The orga­ni­za­tion brings togeth­er lawyers, jour­nal­ists, pol­i­cy­mak­ers, and tech­nol­o­gists in order to make future tech poli­cies for India.

Choudhary: We are also the orga­ni­za­tion which found the Internet Shutdowns project, which was the first of its kind in the world to track Internet shut­downs in India. It’s called inter​net​shut​downs​.in, and it is a map-based track­er, and it keeps track of state-declared Internet shutdowns.

Anthonio: India has over a bil­lion peo­ple, and half of those are Internet users. Mishi’s orga­ni­za­tion has been keep­ing track of Internet shut­downs since 2012.

Choudhary: From 2012 up to July 2020, we have record­ed a total of 412 Internet shut­downs so far. And as part of this num­ber of 412, right, from 2012 up to now, we are only record­ing com­plete shutdowns. 

Anthonio: Though India is a huge coun­try, the shut­downs are cen­tered on cer­tain hotspots. 

Choudhary: Several of them are con­cen­trat­ed in Jammu and Kashmir, which used to be a state until last year but now has been con­vert­ed into a union ter­ri­to­ry direct­ly under the cen­tral gov­ern­ment. And there­fore when­ev­er there is a shut­down, obvi­ous­ly life is dis­rupt­ed, economies brought to a stand­still, edu­ca­tion suf­fers, health suffers.

Anthonio: When shut­downs are hap­pen­ing in cer­tain areas, it isn’t always easy to know exact­ly when they’ve even happened. 

Choudhary: In fact, when our orga­ni­za­tion start­ed doc­u­ment­ing Internet shut­downs, we were only doc­u­ment­ing some web sites which had been blocked. And then we start­ed get­ting infor­ma­tion that in cer­tain areas there was just no Internet at all, a com­plete black­out. So that means that the author­i­ties were not even mak­ing an offi­cial announce­ment and putting the pub­lic on notice that there would be an Internet shutdown. 

Anthonio: When they start­ed this project, Mishi also start­ed lit­i­ga­tion in order to enforce the respect of dig­i­tal rights. After all, Mishi’s an expe­ri­enced lawyer, with a mis­sion to accomplish.

Choudhary: The first case was filed in 2015. Then there was anoth­er case in 2018. 19 there have been sev­er­al peti­tions. And in the Supreme Court of India, there was a major peti­tion chal­leng­ing the long, 213 days-long Internet shut­down in the state of Jammu and Kashmir also. 

Anthonio: In August 2017, the exec­u­tive branch launched new rules which spelled out con­di­tions under which a shut­down can be launched.

Choudhary: In the last edi­tion now, the Supreme Court held that the pub­lic needs to be informed. There can­not be an indef­i­nite Internet shut­down. And all orders that order Internet shut­downs also have to be made pub­lic so that peo­ple know what the rea­son is, why an Internet shut­down is being ordered, and if they want to they can also chal­lenge it in courts. So, some improve­ment has been made, but India con­tin­ues to use this as a mech­a­nism in order to some­times curb law and order sit­u­a­tions, some­times pre­vent cheat­ing in exam­i­na­tions, and at oth­er times for com­mu­nal protests, com­mu­nal riots… And in the recent past we’ve also seen that wher­ev­er there were protests, that also in those regions Internet was shut down.

Anthonio: The fre­quen­cy of shut­downs in India seems to sug­gest that it has become a part of dai­ly life in the demo­c­ra­t­ic Indian society. 

Choudhary: What we do is we col­lect videos, text messages—because of of course there’s no Internet—so peo­ple make videos lat­er on, or if they move to anoth­er part of the coun­try they send us videos. During the shut­downs they send us text mes­sages. If they can some­how get inter­mit­tent access, they send us some clips, etc. of how their life is being impacted.

Anthonio: India has become a coun­try where the state has a very strong con­trol over Internet con­nec­tiv­i­ty and dig­i­tal rights in general. 

Choudhary: Some things that have stayed with us are espe­cial­ly dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, when we all have now come to depend on Internet for edu­ca­tion, for busi­ness, for…going to work, as one says. For shop­ping, for every­thing. It has been real­ly real­ly heart-wrenching to see that peo­ple in parts of the coun­try where Internet is not avail­able, or is avail­able at much much slow­er speeds, such as 2G speeds, what they go through. 

Some of the sto­ries which stayed with us was chil­dren not being able to apply for uni­ver­si­ty admis­sions because all the appli­ca­tions to the uni­ver­si­ty were avail­able only online. And because there was no Internet, they could not apply in time to go to the universities. 

And one very very inter­est­ing thing that hap­pened was that recent­ly, because we had been chal­leng­ing and bring­ing the plight of the peo­ple in Kashmir about Internet shut­downs to the courts and the courts had not real­ly giv­en the desired relief to those peo­ple, the Chief Justice of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, she her­self was com­plain­ing that she could not do her work and appear on dis­cus­sions online because Internet was unre­li­able in their area. And that real­ly sent the point home. 

Anthonio: While India holds the record for the most shut­downs in the region, across the bor­der in Pakistan the gov­ern­ment is set­ting anoth­er alarm­ing prece­dent. In Wāṇa, South Waziristan Agency, there was an Internet shut­down that last­ed 3,411 days. The kill switch sim­ply stayed off.

Hija Kamran: Hi, my name is Hija Kamran, and I’m cur­rent­ly work­ing at Media Matters for Democracy as a dig­i­tal rights lead, and also man­ag­ing the Digital Rights Monitor, which is Pakistan’s first dig­i­tal rights-focused news web site. 

Anthonio: The Digital Rights Monitor, pro­duced by Media Matters for Democracy, is the first pub­li­ca­tion of its kind in Pakistan.

Kamran: We basi­cal­ly report on dig­i­tal rights-related issues in Pakistan and also some major devel­op­ments from the glob­al com­mu­ni­ty as well. So we kind of fill that void of infor­ma­tion that exists around dig­i­tal rights in Pakistan.

Anthonio: For a long time, dig­i­tal rights have not been part of any kind of human rights dis­cus­sion in Pakistan.

Kamran: People have a lot of oth­er issues that they deal with, and this is one of the argu­ments that we have to counter in all of our con­ver­sa­tions that we have with reg­u­lar Internet users as well. When you talk about dig­i­tal rights, the word rights does­n’t sit well with them? Because peo­ple do not have access to basic neces­si­ties like you know, food, shel­ter, cloth­ing. They need to first have access to those rights and then we can ven­ture into dig­i­tal rights.

Anthonio: Hija explains that part of their work is to make it clear to peo­ple that dig­i­tal rights and access to the Internet, and to infor­ma­tion, have become increas­ing­ly inter­con­nect­ed to our most basic human rights.

Kamran: Essentially, Internet pro­vides a pow­er for peo­ple to voice their con­cerns. For exam­ple if you do not have access to something—there is a lot of elec­tric­i­ty issues in Pakistan—a lot of peo­ple turn to Twitter or Facebook to con­nect with their util­i­ty ser­vice provider. And they could voice their con­cern and they share their con­cern but they do not have pow­er [indis­tinct], so we need access to it now. So it’s basi­cal­ly a tool to demand access to these fun­da­men­tal rights that most of the peo­ple do not have in Pakistan.

Anthonio: The rea­son why the fight for dig­i­tal rights is so impor­tant in Pakistan is also close­ly con­nect­ed to the coun­try’s his­to­ry of Internet shutdowns.

Kamran: I can­not point out the exact year, exact moment it actu­al­ly began, but the ear­li­est mem­o­ry that I have is from 2007 when the for­mer prime min­is­ter of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto was assas­si­nat­ed in Karachi. So I remem­ber when the assas­si­na­tion hap­pened, nat­u­ral­ly there was a lot of chaos in the city and also across the coun­try as well. The first line of action that the author­i­ties took was to sus­pend mobile networks. 

Anthonio: Since then, the kill switch has become just anoth­er tool for the gov­ern­ment to use to run the country.

Kamran: You see the trend hap­pen­ing, extend­ing from that point onward. You see how even in villages…you know, events like Ashura, reli­gious events like you know, birth of the prophet Muhammad. And also nation­al events like Independence Day or the Defence Day, these Internet shut­downs have been very fre­quent. That they actu­al­ly do is basi­cal­ly just extend…as every­body knows, just extend chaos and con­fu­sion among people. 

There was this instance in 2017 where an Islamic extrem­ist group in Pakistan start­ed this riot across the coun­try, sort of just to demand author­i­ties to accept what­ev­er they were demand­ing from them. And the gov­ern­ment basi­cal­ly sus­pend­ed mobile net­works, sus­pend­ed the main­stream media cov­er­age in Pakistan. And to think that while there is a riot hap­pen­ing out­side of your door you do not know what the sit­u­a­tion is and whether it’s safe to step out­side your house and you know, just run for an emer­gency…[record­ing of Kamran is fad­ed out]

Anthonio: But unlike shut­downs that only last while there are riots or protests, there are parts of Pakistan where the Internet just stays switched off.

Kamran: For exam­ple in 2017 I remem­ber when I first report­ed on the Internet shut­down that has been going on since 2016. The issue that came for­ward was that jour­nal­ists can­not report any break­ing news because they have to trav­el long distances. 

Anthonio: The rea­son the gov­ern­ment gives for their con­tin­ued shut­down is that they want to ensure secu­ri­ty in the region dur­ing ongo­ing con­flicts with terrorists.

Kamran: There is this instance from 2017 where there was a bomb blast in an area of Parachinar, which is a city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. People in the rest of the coun­try did not know for hours or for days that a bomb blast of high mag­ni­tude has hap­pened in a city, because there was no media in that area to report on it. So you know, lives are lost, but the infor­ma­tion is not being report­ed, peo­ple can­not voice their con­cerns, peo­ple can­not demand secu­ri­ty, peo­ple can­not demand their fun­da­men­tal rights that are pro­tect­ed under the constitution.

Anthonio: As a shut­down such as this gets longer and longer, the effects are com­pound­ed. It is not only about infor­ma­tion get­ting out, but also about infor­ma­tion being able to get in.

Kamran: I was talk­ing to a jour­nal­ist in the region which is now the for­mer FATA and now part of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. I was talk­ing to the jour­nal­ist and he told me that there are peo­ple who do not even know that there is some­thing called coro­n­avirus because peo­ple do not have infor­ma­tion about the seri­ous­ness of the issue. They are roam­ing around the streets, they are going to bazaars, they are going to mar­ket, they are open­ing their shops and doing all the things that they usu­al­ly do. And then you know, access to health­care is also very shaky in that area. Hospitals are almost nonex­is­tent, and again they have to trav­el long dis­tances to access health­care as well. So, not hav­ing access to the Internet and the infor­ma­tion that is avail­able on it is result­ing in issues of health­care and issues of access to edu­ca­tion as well. 

Anthonio: Access to infor­ma­tion is not only essen­tial for secur­ing your human rights, it’s also essen­tial for know­ing that you have rights to begin with.

Kamran: They do not want the cit­i­zens, the res­i­dents of the region to have the infor­ma­tion that is essen­tial for them to stand for their rights because these are the peo­ple who have been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly oppressed. So they believe that it is also the gov­ern­men­t’s way to not have us empow­ered, not have the cit­i­zens have the infor­ma­tion around their rights, because that would mean we would say truth to pow­er or we would demand our rights, so the gov­ern­ment basi­cal­ly do not want us to do that also.

Anthonio: On the ground, stu­dents who are fed up with the shut­downs are also mobi­liz­ing for change. 

Kamran: So I think there is just a huge move­ment going on around access to Internet that is being basi­cal­ly start­ed by the stu­dents in all of these regions that do not have Internet access right now. Because this is not a new issue, not in the region, not in the coun­try. This is not a new issue. A few peo­ple actu­al­ly have been talk­ing about it for a very long time, for years in fact since it has been going on. But because it is now affect­ing peo­ple who have voice and who are speak­ing up because they have some kind of Internet access or they are locat­ed in regions where they do have Internet access, they are now speak­ing up and they’re more vocal about it. So it’s now being report­ed in main­stream media. But for the longest time because of secu­ri­ty rea­sons nobody would want to watch a report on these issues because that would mean chal­leng­ing the author­i­ty’s deci­sion and that is not a norm in Pakistan. That is not what we see peo­ple doing a lot in Pakistan. 

Anthonio: The gov­ern­ment in Myanmar is slow­ly mov­ing in the direc­tion of Pakistan. The mobile Internet shut­down which began on June 21, 2019 recent­ly has reached its one-year anniver­sary. It’s an anniver­sary that many feel is not worth celebrating.

Oliver Spencer: On the 20th of June 2019, the gov­ern­ment issued a direc­tive under the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions law order­ing all mobile data access to be cut for nine town­ships across the west­ern part of the coun­try, which has got a lot of con­flict going on at the moment.

Anthonio: Oliver Spencer is a legal advi­sor to Free Expression Myanmar, an orga­ni­za­tion that has been fight­ing for dig­i­tal rights and access to the Internet in Myanmar for years now.

Spencer: The area which the shut­down has applied to has grown and shrunk over the peri­od since last year. And it now cov­ers about 1.4 mil­lion peo­ple. So that’s 1.4 mil­lion peo­ple that don’t have any access to mobile data. And this is in a coun­try where almost all Internet access is through mobile data.

Anthonio: The gov­ern­ment of Myanmar has been care­ful in its mes­sag­ing. Despite what might be hap­pen­ing in the coun­try itself, they want to make sure that the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty per­ceives it as act­ing justly. 

Spencer: So our work is most­ly around advo­ca­cy with gov­ern­ment, busi­ness­es, and oth­er stake­hold­ers to high­light what’s hap­pen­ing or why the shut­down is a poor deci­sion that will not achieve their secu­ri­ty goals but instead threat­en many of the rights and the devel­op­ment of the peo­ple that are involved. 

The main issue FEM faces is that the gov­ern­ment claims it’s democ­ra­tiz­ing, but is using all of the old tools of the dic­ta­tor­ship. They in effect are try­ing to jus­ti­fy the means by the ends. So all we’ve got to rely on are the offi­cial state­ments— I’m sor­ry, offi­cials mak­ing state­ments, answer­ing very brief media ques­tions. So you know, you’re talk­ing about jour­nal­ists ask­ing a ques­tion and receiv­ing a sort of one-sentence answer. 

What they’ve said in these brief state­ments are that it’s relat­ing to dis­tur­bance of peace, coor­di­nat­ed ille­gal activ­i­ties, nation­al secu­ri­ty. We’ve heard also about so-called pub­lic inter­est, and also hate speech.

Anthonio: The gov­ern­men­t’s nar­ra­tive becomes the only nar­ra­tive. And the less infor­ma­tion they give out, the less account­abil­i­ty they have.

Spencer: These jus­ti­fi­ca­tions are com­pli­cat­ed, from what we’ve seen. For a start the con­flict has not decreased. Many CSOs and observers of the con­flict may even have said it’s increased over the peri­od. Security cer­tain­ly has­n’t increased with­in that area. So it’s a very broad, very vague shut­down that in effect just severe­ly restricts 1.4 mil­lion peo­ple on a very vague and impre­cise basis, with no test of the impact of the shut­down, no test of the bal­anc­ing act between nation­al secu­ri­ty and access to the Internet. 

Anthonio: What we’ve seen hap­pen again and again is that once a gov­ern­ment starts exper­i­ment­ing with Internet shut­downs, they grow more and more con­fi­dence in using the kill switch and oth­er tools of infor­ma­tion con­trol and censorship. 

Spencer: Since the shut­down start­ed in June 2019, ear­li­er this year we also saw an esca­la­tion because the gov­ern­ment then start­ed blocking—or, sor­ry, the gov­ern­ment then issued direc­tives order­ing tele­coms com­pa­nies to block web sites. And these web sites includ­ed both news web sites and also CSO’s web sites from with­in this area. So in effect they have esca­lat­ed their crack­down on the com­mu­ni­ca­tions flows. Because now not only is the Internet shut down for this entire pop­u­la­tion, but the one or two media out­lets which actu­al­ly had access with­in the area and were pub­lish­ing sto­ries to the rest of the coun­try and the world about what was hap­pen­ing there, they also are not acces­si­ble now to any­one using the mobile Internet. It seems like we’re now in a peri­od of esca­la­tion. I’m just con­cerned about what will be cen­sored online next. 

Anthonio: The final obser­va­tion from Oliver per­haps ties the sto­ries in this episode togeth­er best. 

Spencer: You’ve got coun­tries like India which have spent the last five years doing mul­ti­ple short-term shut­downs in dif­fer­ent areas across the coun­try. And I think what’s clear to [indis­tinct] is that the oth­er coun­tries in the region are actu­al­ly learn­ing from this. They’re learn­ing how to do it. They’re learn­ing if they do it there’s very lit­tle reper­cus­sion upon them. And so I think we’re going to see an increase across the region because they all learn from each oth­er about how pow­er­ful this is as a tool. 

Anthonio: When a spokesper­son of the President’s Office of Myanmar jus­ti­fied their shut­down by say­ing that oth­er coun­tries in the world have sim­i­lar prac­tices for secu­ri­ty con­cerns, it was per­haps a ref­er­ence to the actions of gov­ern­ments such as that of Pakistan and Ethiopia. But a state­ment is also a dark echo of what NSA whistle­blow­er Edward Snowden said a few years ear­li­er in 2017 dur­ing the Internet shut­down in Cameroon. I quote, This is the future of repres­sion. If we do not fight it there, it will hap­pen here. #KeepItOn

In the next episode, we find out what hap­pens when activists take their gov­ern­ments and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion com­pa­nies com­plic­it in these shut­downs to court. 

For more infor­ma­tion about how to sup­port the KeepItOn coali­tion and our work, vis­it our web site, www​.access​now​.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, and to Keep It On. I am your host Felicia Anthonio, and you have been lis­ten­ing to Kill Switch. Goodbye, and remem­ber to Keep It On.