Many people in the Western world consider internet access to be a fundamental right. Our ability to instantly communicate with our friends and family, access information, and generate income using internet connection is easily taken for granted here in the United States.
However, our ability to access and connect to the internet can easily be restricted by external forces such as the government, weather, and terrorism. And when it comes to government-restricted access, oftentimes it’s the first of many acts a dictatorial government takes to exert control on its citizens. There are typically two forms of internet control:
- An entire internet block or shutdown: When this happens, all social media platforms, internet-based voice and messaging applications, and ordinary websites are out of commission. To make this happen, the government has to order internet service providers (ISPs) to limit access for their subscribers. Some ISPs are state owned, making it easier for the government to control. However, even privately owned ISPs have reportedly been held at gunpoint and forced to switch off the internet in certain countries.
- Content blocks and bandwidth throttling: Aside from a total blackout, the government can block certain websites and apps, or make signals weak and connections so low, rendering the internet unusable.
Government tampering of internet access has been on the rise, particularly since Egypt imposed a week-long blackout during its 2011 uprising. Although the idea of this happening in the United States seems far-off, it’s unwise to assume it couldn’t happen. Afterall, shadow banning is now a concerning thing (shadow banning is the act of blocking or partially blocking a user or their content from an online community such that it will not be readily apparent to the user that they have been banned). You never know.
That’s why today, I’m sharing a few recent examples of government-restricted internet access. Understanding how these restrictions have affected citizens, and how to prepare if something similar happens at home, is critical.
Where They Are Happening and Why
Many of us are aware that countries such as China have controlled their populus’ internet access since the time that the internet was first made available in the country. However, as Wired Magazine shares, “regimes around the world, including those in Russia and Iran, have increasingly been retrofitting traditional private and decentralized networks with cooperation agreements, technical implants, or a combination to give officials more influence.” The Washington Post also reports that more than a quarter of countries in the world have cut off civilian access to communication tools at some point in the past four years. Some of these countries include: Algeria, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Mali, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and Russia.
Though there are many reasons for these shutdowns, there are commonalities between many recent examples. A lot of them come down to governments attempting to shut their citizens off from the world during tense and controversial periods. According to Marcin de Kaminski, a technology and human rights expert at Civil Rights Defenders, ‘They use it to limit freedom of expression or freedom of assembly and quite often it's connected to elections or conflict or to different forms of civil unrest.’”
Let’s take a look at three countries in particular that recently faced shutdowns or restricted access...
Iran: On November 17, 2019, in response to protests against rising gas prices as well as the regime’s brutal policies, the Iranian government instituted internet and mobile data blackouts across the country. Six days later, on November 23, the internet shutdown remained below 20% of normal level. As the Atlantic Council shared, the shutdown “derailed daily life, resulting in widespread disruptions in services including healthcare, financial transactions and even tests for admission to foreign universities.” But the disruption may not be a one-time occurrence. Just a few weeks before the shutdown, on November 1, a senior official in Iran's ministry of information and communications technology discussed the possibility of partitioning citizens’ internet access based on "social class" or "occupational needs."
Venezuela: As we’ve shared in other Survival Scout posts (see them here), Venezuelans have had their fair share of challenges in the past few months and years, such as country-wide power outages. In January 2019 the government blocked access to social media networks such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook as part of an effort to silence political opposition and prevent the spread of mass protests. At a few points, the entire internet went down.
Russia: Don’t be fooled--third world or developing countries aren’t the only ones moving towards restricted internet access. In October 2018, in an effort to stop citizens in the Ingushetia region from using WhatsApp and other online methods to organize protests, the Russian government shut down the internet on the three main mobile service providers for two weeks until the protests died down. And in May of 2019, Russia passed a law allowing the government to create its own parallel mirror version of the internet. This means the government would have the power to cut the country’s web connections from the rest of the world, essentially keeping its citizens online internally.
Could This Happen in The United States?
As we’ve seen, internet blockages are becoming more commonplace, from one continent to the next. The United States has always prided itself on its freedoms, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. However, the threat of a corrupted government overriding these freedoms and breaking the law is always going to be a potential scenario. We already have or private businesses that are publishing platforms censoring free speech (think Facebook, YouTube, Twitter). Unfortunately, as the internet becomes more centralized, it becomes increasingly vulnerable to manipulation.
We’ve already seen the line between internet freedoms and government involvement blurred, such as a bill that released internet service providers (ISPs) like Verizon and AT&T from having to protect consumer data, or the weakening of net neutrality rules. These measures lay the groundwork for our government to get further involved in controlling our access to internet and data as a whole.
Preparing for Restricted Access
Let’s say you experience an internet and data blackout in your area--what would you do? Your means of easy communication, access to information, banking, and more will be disrupted. Though there’s not a lot of options, here are three suggestions for how to manage an internet disruption or blackout...
- If the government isn’t shutting down the internet entirely but restricting access to certain sites, there’s ways around it, such as using a TPN or a traffic-routing service such as Tor. For example, when Turkey attempted to block its citizens from using Twitter in March 2019, citizens were able to access the site via a mirror set up by Google DNS. Google simply routed traffic through a different IP, avoiding the Turkish censor.
- Utilize alternative methods of staying informed. Remember, back before the internet existed, we relied on radio and newspaper to share and access information. Don’t underestimate the power of these services, at least to access local news in the short term.
- Make a plan: Within your existing emergency preparedness plan, think about what will be compromised if you lose access to the internet. How will you contact friends and family? How will you use an ATM? How will you navigate without Waze or Google Maps? Make sure you’re stocked up on items like maps, walkie talkies, cash money, barter items, and other things that don’t rely on internet access.
Though a government-backed internet shutdown may seem like a far-off reality for the United States, it’s important to talk about a wide range of potentially worst-case scenarios. Continue to remain informed about this growing trend, and you and your family will be better off for it.
Stay alert and prepared, friends.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply