#44: In Case of an Internet Shutdown

Our 44th prompt comes from Liv. She asks:

Just in case the government decides to shut down our internet during the coming elections, what exactly are we in for…what steps are they likely to take and how would they go about it?

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Liv,

This is a great and timely question, given that Francis Wangusi of the Communication Authority recently said that “they are not thinking of shutting down the internet but be warned that it should not be used to release alternative election results.” Whatever that means. The general sentiment from government is that it is unlikely, but this does not mean that it won’t happen.

First things first: what is an internet shutdown? Well, it is when “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” occurs. Who tends to shut down the internet? The government, of course. Their reason(s)? Preventing exam cheating, stopping the spread of “hate speech”, preventing protests and the “spread of violence” (or reporting about it)…ultimately, the goal is to restrict the flow of information and curb dissent, which goes against your rights/freedoms, as you have the freedom of expression and the right to information. Many times they do it after an event occurs, but sometimes they will look in their crystal ball, anticipate events (which may not even occur) and shut the internet down preemptively. Many folks have written about how to prepare yourself for a shutdown, my favourite piece is this one by Alberto Fittarelli. I also like this one by Quincy Larson on how to set up a VPN in 10 minutes for free.

So, how do shutdowns work? Depends on who owns the infrastructure you access the internet through. If it’s the government, that’s easy – they do it themselves. If it’s not them, they pressure ISPs that own the hardware to do it. They could, for example, make them unplug or deny power to routers. Seeing as this is on the physical level, there is nothing much you could do (this would be a total shutdown), unless you have access to the internet from a provider the government doesn’t influence or control. Maybe through an ISP in another country.

The more common thing to do, however, is to block access to specific sites. For example, you type in facebook.com and are unable to access the website because the underlying IP address of the site has been blocked. The requests themselves could also be blocked/not allowed to reach their destination. They could also be redirected to another site/location, maybe some sort of internet black hole, or even a site that mimics Facebook and phishes your data. Let’s use WhatsApp as an example. The servers that host it have specific IP addresses, so to block access to WhatsApp, you simply need to use the above tactics and apply them to their IP addresses.

Telcos tend to shrug and ask us what we want them to do, seeing as they are licensed/regulated by the government, and if they refuse to comply, we can only imagine the consequences will be dire. Most, if not all of them, don’t want to find out what will happen. There is a sliver of hope through VPNs, which work by rerouting your traffic to another country where access to the site you are trying to access hasn’t been blocked/restricted. It then appears like you are accessing that site from another country, and everyone (other than government) is happy. However, the government could go a step further and block VPNs as well, as China is planning to.

The opportunities for mischief are endless. #StayWoke

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This post is part of a daily writing experiment that I’m running for a year. I’d love it if you took part! 🙂

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