It is increasingly common for governments to shut down the Internet on a national or sub-national level to solve specific problems, including controlling civil unrest, stemming the flow of misinformation, or preventing cheating on national exams.
As of the end of 2023, governments and other actors across 18 countries intentionally disrupted Internet connectivity or blocked access to specific Internet services for their citizens. Of the 124 events Pulse tracked across the year, including four that continued from last year, 55 have been nationwide disruptions lasting from a couple of hours to a week, culminating in more than 2,370 days of disruptions.
What is an Internet Shutdown
An Internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of Internet-based communications, making them inaccessible or unavailable for a specific population, location, or type of access. It is often a state’s attempt to control the flow of information within a region by preventing people from accessing the global Internet. Internet shutdowns differ from application-level or content censorship/blocking, where Internet connectivity is available, but access to selected websites or applications is limited.
Shutdowns are a disproportional reaction that often only hides – instead of solving – a perceived problem and can result in significant collateral damage.
Internet Shutdowns in 2023
In Africa, Internet users in Ethiopia continued to be hit hardest by Internet disruptions. Popular social media and messaging services (TikTok, Facebook, Telegram, YouTube) were blocked nationally for 158 days amid religious tensions and calls for anti-government protests, costing the country nearly USD $43 million in lost GDP.
At a regional level, many of the six million people living in Ethiopia’s Tigray region continue to live through the longest-running Internet shutdown, now well over 1,150 days long. Many residents in the neighboring Amhara region have had their Internet connectivity disrupted since 3 August, with no official reason given as yet.
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In the Middle East, Iraq authorities ordered the most shutdowns out of all countries (n=45), most of which were enacted as part of the government’s strategy to curb cheating during its national curriculum exams.
Its neighbor, the Syrian Arab Republic, also enacted a similar strategy during its exam period in June, shutting down the Internet nationally on 11 occasions, as did Algeria (n=5).
Overall, exam-related shutdowns accounted for nearly half of all shutdowns for the year.
The conflict and resulting loss of Internet connectivity in Gaza garnered plenty of media attention, with the Pulse team providing commentary via the Pulse Blog and Internet Shutdown Tracker and contributing to efforts to understand and communicate the effects of the shutdowns.
Even though India conceded its mantle as the leading Internet shutdown offender, having accounted for more than 50% of all documented shutdowns since 2016, it still registered more than 40 regional shutdown events. Most of these lasted one to three days and were enacted predominantly as part of broader orders to contain civil unrest.
People living in the state of Manipur experienced the longest-running shutdown in India. Apart from a five-day hiatus in August, mobile Internet services have been hampered since May 2023! Read: Manipur’s Digital Blackout: Internet Shutdown is an Assault on Justice and Fundamental Rights.
India’s neighbor, Pakistan, recorded the most significant economic impact related to a government-ordered shutdown in 2023, with the country losing nearly US $17 million in GDP revenue across a four-day nationwide shutdown in May.
The NetLoss Calculator is a new feature we’ve added to the Pulse platform to estimate the economic outcomes of Internet shutdowns using a rigorous methodology. Start calculating!
Finally, Myanmar continued to block Internet service throughout 2023. By 2 February 2024, it will have been three years since it has done so, resulting in more than USD $225 million in lost GDP revenue and 660 jobs!
Europe was not immune to shutdowns in 2023, with Russian Internet providers continuing to block popular international Internet services as per orders at the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, destabilizing the resilience of the Internet in the region. By February 2024, this will have resulted in USD $3 billion in lost GDP and more than USD $760 million in lost FDI!
Finally, in Türkiye, the government ordered local mobile providers to block Twitter for a day to curb online criticism of its response to the devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck the country on 6 February.
Keep the Internet on and Strong
Internet shutdowns harm societies, economies, and the global Internet infrastructure. We urge governments and decision-makers everywhere to support policies that keep the Internet on and strong to build strong economies and give people an opportunity for a prosperous future.