Can you imagine a world without the Internet in the current circumstances? Now, just visualise the kind of frustration you experience when you see a “404 error” and “DNS server error” on your screen? Well, if this was 1995 where just 1% of the world had access to the net, it wouldn’t have made a difference even if we didn’t have access to the Internet. But, in the digitally-driven world that we live in, nearly 60% of the world’s population has Internet access — that’s about 4.7 billion active Internet users on Earth!
From being a privilege (in the late 1990s and early 2000s) to evolving into a necessity, the growth of the Internet and its significance has revolutionised our lives and the world we live in. We have now entered a new phase of technological evolution, a phase where the Internet is fully integrated into every part of our lives — how we learn, how we work, how we shop, how we get around. So much so that Internet shutdowns have begun bringing down our economies.
We are connected through smart devices, homes and smart cities but the IoT’s very nature of functioning through a billion devices, constantly transmitting data, raises many issues. That means we are in for increased mass surveillance, further erosion of privacy, and a growing dependence on data collection, analytics, and curation. The privacy implications are profound. Without essential safeguards, greater amounts of data will be collected and used without the user’s knowledge or control.
Data from 2020 shows that India and Myanmar have had the highest number of Internet blackouts in the world. According to a report, India continued to restrict internet access the most in 2020. While the economy had already been deep in the dumps due to the pandemic, these content blockages made it worse for the country. The true economic cost is therefore likely to be even higher than the $2.8 billion, reveals the report.
Most shutdowns in India were highly targeted short blackouts, affecting groups of villages or individual city districts.
- Internet Blackouts – where access to the internet is completely cut off. This extreme measure cannot be directly circumvented.
- Social media shutdowns – where access to popular social media platforms, such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter or YouTube has been blocked. These can typically be circumvented by using a VPN.
Severe throttling – where access to the internet has been reduced to 2G speeds, which permits the use of SMS and voice calls but renders modern websites and apps functionally unusable.
Around the world, 27,000 hours of internet shutdowns in 2020 cost the global economy $4.01 billion. Last year, India was the most economically impacted nation among the 21 countries in the study. This year too, India is a world leader in self-inflicted economic damage from Internet shutdowns.
From severe throttling of mobile services in Kashmir to internet blackouts during farmers’ protests in Delhi, India continues to have maximum interference from its government, eventually hurting itself. Recently too, India tried to block access to Twitter, claiming the social networking giant doesn’t comply with the country’s IT regulations on third party content.
Similarly, one blackout in Saudi Arabia in May 2016 cost the country a lot of money. Citing economic damage to telecommunications providers, the government blocked the functionality of several apps related to VoIP, texting, and instant messaging; those impacted included WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Skype, among others. Irrespective of the reason behind it, the move cost the country US$465 million in GDP.
An expensive affair
The ubiquity of Internet shutdowns around the world is slowly but quietly putting nations around the world on a slippery economic slope. As the digital economy expands, it will become even more expensive for nations to shut down the internet.
Internet blackouts have gradually become a quick option for governments around the world even in situations where Internet use would have little impact on the outcome. According to this study, National leaders need to understand the harmful costs of this maneuver. Not only do shutdowns and restrictions harm democratic expression and public communications, but also hurt the business community, limit small and medium-sized enterprises, and weaken social and economic activity.
While governments continue to misuse their power, what is the economic blow a country suffers as a result of Internet shutdowns? Here’s a look:
For instance: Tourism is one sector that takes a massive blow apart from sectors like digital payments & e-banking, e-commerce, freelance work and IT-related services. States in India with significant dependence on tourism such as Kashmir, Darjeeling and Rajasthan saw tourism-related businesses suffer major losses.
Jobs at stake
For starters, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression has underlined that Internet shutdowns represent a dramatic means of limiting fundamental freedoms. As more and more education, business, culture and communications take place over the Internet, turning this off has a major effect on the lives of the people affected.
Let me give you a startling example here. In Cameroon, in particular, the shutdown hurt many of the entrepreneurs who had set up businesses, often with borrowed money, in response to the government’s ambitions to make the country a technology hub. Existing businesses relying on the Internet for e-commerce, logistics and payments are hobbled. Shutdowns have been outrageously cited as an investment risk for businesses too.
On an individual level, small-time vendors from the informal economy who rely heavily on digital payments, citizens who rely on tech-based utilities for daily chores and other fundamental services such as education, health care and other public services are halted in the process. What’s worse is emergency services may be unable to function (and people are less able to contact them).
For instance: During India’s 2nd wave of Coronavirus, Twitter and Whatsapp played a major role in helping people with access to oxygen cylinders, beds, ventilators and saved millions from dying. At the same time, the Internet blackout in Delhi as a consequence of farmers’ protests shut off information from the agitation zones to people across the world.
In addition to the education and health costs, they show businesses that they cannot rely on stable Internet access in a country. This will affect investment decisions, and therefore, jobs and growth. At the individual level, people will have less trust in the Internet and the possibility of connecting/switching to multiple webs or the “Splinternet” may arise as a consequence.
If you notice, the most well-known examples of splintering away from the internet come from countries that have placed significant national firewalls and surveillance monitoring systems like China’s “Great Firewall” and Russia’s more recent Sovereign Internet Law, other forms of internet regulation also exist in the shape of surveillance laws (like in India and the UK), as well as data privacy laws like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that give internet users more control over the data they’re giving to different services.
Going by these changes in the world, It’s an ongoing nation-by-nation competition for who gets the internet. China is moving beyond locking down the Internet — more like returning to the walled gardens. It is looking at changing the network’s DNA. You would find WeChat, Baidu & Tencent & not Google, Facebook & WhatsApp. If you go to Russia, you’ll find Yandex, not Google, as the dominant internet company.
India and Brazil are exceptions in this model which are still relying on US-based tech companies. But, if you look at Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and others, those countries are buying into the Chinese model.
According to this paper, India is an interesting example of a country that has traditionally had a relatively open internet but which seems to be moving very heavily in the direction of locking it down — more like an authoritarian wannabe country. It’s also increasingly likely to be used by authoritarian regimes around the world or authoritarian wannabes. These countries learned from the Arab Spring the power of technology to potentially foment a revolution. And if you’re an authoritarian government, you don’t want a revolution. So, they want to be able to control — to lock down — the means of communication. And they have learned from various other examples, such as China, Russia, and India, that they can shut down either individual companies — blocking Facebook until they take down posts they don’t like, for instance, or blocking Google until they do various things or slap non-compliance allegations on Twitter — or even that they can block the internet altogether.
Of walled gardens & nationalising hardware
But it’s not just software. Increasingly, the hardware itself is being nationalized. Now, some of this is market division. For instance: The iPhone is the dominant device in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland, and Japan. But those are the only countries in which the iPhone is the dominant phone. In the rest of the world, some phones from the Android ecosystem are the dominant ones, and iPhone shares are quite small. Indeed, the iPhone has less than one-third of the overall market.
The fact that different countries use different phones’ hardware is going to become an increasingly significant problem. On the other hand, the United States is currently in the process of banning Chinese phones from the market. The government views Huawei and ZTE phone technology as a security risk, much like TikTok.
The software differences are bad enough. But once internet hardware is country-specific, this becomes harder and harder to undo. And, mobile devices are built to operate with their national networks. This could create further mistrust and complications across the world, digitally too.
Though the Internet, in a way, remains an accident of history, it is still a global entity. But, that is gradually shifting to a more controlled pattern. In fact, we are losing the Internet. While it has bettered our lives in many ways that we can imagine, it is now getting balkanised with a set of digital protocols just because some countries may disagree with the amount of freedom it brings to ordinary citizens.
So, what Balkanisation does is, makes it harder for people to share experiences across countries. We may not be a digitally connected world if our governments interfere with our Internet infrastructure and manipulate software. Doing so takes away the ability to see what the rest of the world has, how the rest of the world thinks, and that’s a loss. I think it’s a loss for everyone, but it’s a particular loss for people in repressive regimes who can look to the outside world for hope, for inspiration to demand change, and for the means of facilitating that change. If we take that away by allowing repressive governments to control how their citizens see the internet, we take away the prospect of freedom for a substantial number of people.
Therefore, battling the challenge for the Internet going forward will depend on whether society can harness the power of technology and the ingenuity of the private sector to develop norms of behaviour so that people can interact safely within their networked communities.
Encryption, Interoperability & more
Maybe, this is a sign to promote technologies that are resilient to government censorship. End-to-end encryption of phones and messaging shall be a good start. And, given that blockchain still hovers as a fringe technology, it could help protect the internet.
So, mainstreaming such tech will not only help communities sift through the digital world safely but also makes splinternet harder to survive. And, finally, laws that ensure interoperability across walled gardens could be a solution.
It is an undeniable fact that the internet has brought us far more creativity from far more sources than ever before. And, the reason is precisely that it wasn’t the information superhighway but because each of us is the provider of information. It’s everybody who posts on YouTube. It’s everybody who posts on a blog. The internet made all of us creators.
That’s got some downsides too. There’s a lot of misinformation out there along with political polarisation. But, it also gives us the tools to learn more and to try to figure out more easily what’s right and what’s not. Therefore, to save the Internet from being controlled by our governments, a coordinated effort by the international community is a must.
The story doesn’t end there. Given that the Internet is still the most powerful infrastructure humanity has ever created, I strongly believe we must continue to work to clear away complications and open doors for everyone to have their voices heard when it comes to how Internet policies are developed. Because…imagine if I never wrote this article and you never read it? That’s precisely why we need it now, more than ever!