A new report shows India’s regional internet shutdowns in 2020 cost its economy approximately $2.8 billion, making it the country that suffered the most damage from internet manipulation by a government last year.
Internet shutdowns, or the intentional disruptions of internet access or electronic communications targeting a specific location or population, are often used by governments to control unrest but often lead to human rights abuses, from silencing the press and obstructing peaceful protests to cutting off access to information.
Intermittent shutdowns across India, combined with the blackout in the disputed Kashmir region that extended over months, made up 8,927 hours and affected over 10 million people, the report said. It also shows India and Myanmar are responsible for the longest shutdowns for the second consecutive year.
The “Global Cost of Internet Shutdowns in 2020” report, published by Virtual Provider Network (VPN) review platform Top10VPN, compiled instances of internet manipulation across the globe through the year and found that major shutdowns took place in 21 countries including Belarus, Yemen and Myanmar, contributing to a loss of over $4 billion in total – with India’s losses counting for about three-fourths of the total global cost.
Internet disruptions in these countries took a number of forms: total blackouts, social media shutdowns and internet throttling (when internet service providers limit users’ bandwidth or internet speeds), the report noted.
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“Not only are (internet disruptions) an act of economic self-sabotage, they also violate citizens’ freedom of expression, the right to information and the right to peaceful assembly,” Samuel Woodhams, digital rights researcher at Top10VPN and one of the authors of the report, told CoinDesk via an email.
The report indicated that in countries such as Myanmar and Yemen, internet disruptions may have prevented citizens, particularly in rural areas, from receiving important information and updates about the spread of COVID-19.
“By disrupting access to the internet, authorities denied citizens the right to access vital information about the virus … and may have created conditions in which the virus was able to spread unabated,” Woodhams said.
However, the global economic cost of internet shutdowns in 2020 was down by 50% from 2019, when the annual analysis by Top10VPN showed a loss of $8 billion. For instance, 263 days of disruptions in Iraq cost the nation $2.3 billion in 2019 compared to India, which lost $2.8 billion in over 8,000 days of disruptions.
Woodhams explained this is due to a disparity in the scale of interference.
“The Iraq and Sudan shutdowns in 2019 were so expensive because they were nationwide, rather than localized. In India, all of the restrictions were targeting regions, not the whole country, so the impact on the economy was less as only a proportion of the population experienced restrictions,” Woodhams said.
Between 2019 and 2020, India was responsible for the longest recorded internet shutdown in a democracy as the Kashmir region remained in the dark for at least seven months. When the internet was eventually restored, users only had access to 2G speeds, an example of severe internet throttling by a government over an extended time.
“While there is often little transparency regarding who ordered the disruptions, it is normally always authorities forcing companies to slow their speeds,” Woodhams said.
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He added that the research team at Top10VPN kept up to date with internet shutdowns throughout the year and gathered data from a range of sources including nongovernmental internet monitoring organization Netblocks, which the researchers also used to estimate the cost, as well as an internet shutdown tracker by India’s Software Freedom Law Center.
The objective of reports compiling the costs of globe-spanning records of internet shutdowns is to make authorities around the world think twice about imposing these deliberate digital disruptions, Woodhams said.