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Flipping the Kill Switch: Internet Restrictions Becoming the New Normal

The Internet was built on the promise that everyone, everywhere could create, share information and ideas without frontiers. Yet, Internet restrictions are increasing to the point they are becoming the norm. And it’s happening fast.

In its 2016 Freedom on the Net report, Freedom House revealed that Internet freedom declined for the 6th year in a row. The report notes that more governments have been blocking social media and communication apps than ever before.

Shutting down entire networks and services in the name of national security is an alarming trend: in 2016, Access Now tracked 56 shutdowns across the world, up from 15 recorded the previous year.

If we don’t do anything, we are at serious risk of eroding the trust that people have on the Internet—to the point of no return.

Let’s Start With The Blunt: Blanket Internet shutdowns

In their most extreme form, shutdowns are pure and simple “kill switches” that cut all connectivity for entire populations. People are unable to access the Internet for anything from getting information, conducting business, to keeping in touch with loved ones. This is a blunt measure with serious collateral damage and costs.

In purely monetary terms, research by the Brookings Institution from June 2015 to June 2016 estimated that shutdowns resulted in aggregated economic slowdown of a total of $2.4bn.

In addition to the immediate, measurable economic costs, shutdowns can also have long-term and pervasive effects on trust. Shutting the Internet down for just a few days can shake the confidence of people and businesses for years to come.

Let’s not forget the human cost either: in Cameroon, where Anglophone regions have been without connectivity for more than 60 days, the shutdown has turned citizens into refugees in their own countries, forcing them to travel inland or in neighboring countries to get connectivity.

On To The Surgical: Internet content blocking and filtering

From blocking foreign gambling websites to blocking political speech, the use of Internet content blocking techniques to restrict content or activities deemed illegal is a growing phenomenon worldwide.

From a purely technical point of view, as shown in a new paper released by the Internet Society, the use of Internet blocking to address illegal content or activities is generally inefficient, often ineffective, and causes collateral damage.

While many users might be discouraged when the page they are trying to access is met with a “page not found,” motivated users will often find a way to circumvent such blocks. In short, blocking tools do nothing more than putting a curtain in front of the content.

Over-blocking is a classic case of collateral damage. For example, in 2010 in the U.S., the attempt by the US Department of Justice to seize ten domain names led to the accidental takedown of 84000 unrelated websites.

The most cutting-edge filtering system we’ve seen is in China. Mobile applications like WeChat can be used to do almost everything: pay bills, hail a taxi, book a doctor’s appointment, share photos and chat. Yet, the application also features advanced blocking not only of websites, but also of certain keywords in live conversations. More “impressive” is that the restrictions found in the national version are absent from versions available on foreign markets, demonstrating the agility by which the government is able to tailor content blocking to particular audiences.

Is this an example of the future of censorship online? Are blanket shutdowns of connectivity only a temporary manifestation of countries or regions that do not yet have the means for more sophisticated and targeted filtering and monitoring of information? Is blocking access to online content and tools becoming the new “normal”?

We need to step up and fight back against Internet access restrictions as a new norm

The Internet is resilient and adapts. The intelligence of the network has always lied at the edges, and governments should know that motivated users will find ways to route around restrictions.

New technological developments, such as the blockchain, offer a glimpse at a future that is more decentralized, censorship-resistant, that gives control back to netizens. Encryption, a fundamental building block for trust on the Internet, should be the norm.

Today, policymakers have a choice to make. One path leads to an open and trusted Internet with the social and economic benefits that come with it. The other leads to an increasingly closed off network that fails to drive growth and is distrusted by people around the world. One path leads to opportunity, the other to stagnation.

The key is trust, and building it will take all of us. With an estimated one in three of all Internet users in the world today below the age of 18, a brighter future for Human Rights online will largely depend on the newer generation of technologists, policymakers, entrepreneurs and civil society leaders who fight for it.

By Nicolas Seidler, Senior Policy advisor

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