Killing the internet when pressure cranks up

In the halcyon days of the internet, a vision took hold that in a vast global network, no single point could control. Rather, the internet would flow like water around obstacles. Tim Berners-Lee, a web pioneer, said it was originally intended to be a “universal space”, not controlled by a single government or company. Bill Clinton declared in 2000 that China controlling the internet in its country would be “like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall”.

Today, it is clear that those views were naïve — as the people of Sudan, Burma and Ethiopia recently discovered. The internet in all three countries went dark after their governments decided to kill it when faced with internal crises. The disruptions showed that the internet is not truly global; it can be switched off by national rulers. And maybe not just in relatively isolated corners of the world. Russia is also pondering whether it can build a kill switch, although the task would be more difficult in a large country with many connections to the world.

In Burma, the authorities instructed mobile telecommunications operators on June 20 to halt internet traffic in nine townships in Rakhine and neighbouring Chin states, scene of the forced expulsion of more than 720,000 Rohingya Muslims by the military in 2017 and of continuing violence.

A Burma official said it was “for the sake of security and the public interest”, claiming “the internet is one of the contributors” to the strife. More likely, the internet has been a vital lifeline for the persecuted Rohingya to communicate with one another and the outside world. Burma has largely barred journalists and international observers from scrutinising its crackdown; shutting down the internet is yet another way to conceal its actions.

In Sudan, the internet connection was switched off on June 3 as security forces pummelled protesters demanding civilian rule after 30 years of authoritarianism. About 120 people were killed in the crackdown. The country’s two mobile telephone operators were ordered to shut down internet services through which most people in Sudan access the web. A month later, the closure remains as a military junta clings to power. Remarkably, even with the digital access sealed off, on Sunday, thousands of people returned to the streets in Khartoum and elsewhere to demand civilian rule. In Ethiopia, the Government shut down internet service for about 100 hours in late June as a failed coup was unfolding.

Of course, shutdown is not the only method for controlling the web. Despots have learnt to infiltrate digital flows with bots and disinformation. China has created what Christopher Walker, of the National Endowment for Democracy, recently called a “technology-animated police state” in suppressing the Uighur population in the Xinjiang region. Far from the original vision of internet freedom, to a degree hardly imagined two decades ago, China has harnessed the internet and technology to serve the party-state. It has nailed the Jell-O to the wall.

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Published Jul 4, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Jul 4, 2019 at 7:43 am)

Killing the internet when pressure cranks up

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