Experts say shutting down Internet access during upheaval can backfire, fueling wider discontent.
Sudanese authorities shut down the nation’s Internet on June 3 amid a violent military crackdown that protest organizers say killed more than 100 people. NetBlocks, an organization that tracks Internet freedom around the world, described the blackout as a “near-total restriction on the flow of information in and out of Sudan for a significant portion of the population.”
Protesters in Sudan have taken to the streets en masse in recent weeks to demand the end of military rule. Food prices and fuel shortages first sparked unrest in December and partly provoked a military coup in April that removed President Omar Hassan al-Bashir from power. Since Bashir’s ouster, a military council has ruled the country and refused to pave the way to a civilian-led government.
This month isn’t the first time the Sudanese government has cut off Internet access. The government also restricted it at various points during the four months leading up to Bashir’s removal.
But the current blackout marks an escalation of digital repression in the East African country. It has frustrated activists’ ability to coordinate protests and broadcast developments within and outside Sudan.
“The absence of social media is affecting our work very much,” one protester told BBC. She added that the blackout has limited activists to organizing via phone call or text message — more costly means of communication that reach fewer people. A Sudanese newspaper reported this week that the blackout will continue for three more months.
Internet blackouts have made life difficult for political opposition movements around the world since the Internet took off. A 2011 study found more than 600 instances across 99 countries of governments cutting off Internet access between 1995 and 2011.
Sometimes countries pull the plug for reasons unrelated to political upheaval; several have shut down the Internet to prevent cheating on national exams, for instance.
But researchers say the Arab Spring turned Internet blackouts into a go-to technique for authoritarian or quasi-authoritarian regimes hoping to prevent protests from escalating. Social media played a key role in mobilizing large crowds during the 2011 uprisings and in spreading revolutionary fervor across borders.
To counteract the power of these digital tools, the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt shut down all international connections to the Internet and blocked access to social networks — with little success in stopping a popular revolution that quickly led to his ouster. Libya also imposed blackouts, and Syrian authorities cut off Internet access in June 2011 to thwart protesters.
After the Arab Spring, “governments now understand the important role that digital technology plays in political protests, and they’re cracking down and making it difficult for protesters,” said Darrell West, founding director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation.
Government-initiated Internet shutdowns are spreading, he added, and the Sudanese case represents a particularly severe application of this wider phenomenon.
“Sudan seems to be an egregious case of shutting down the Internet,” West said. “It just shows how this is becoming more of a problem. And when one country sees somebody else doing it, it encourages others to do the same thing.”
Several other African countries have also blocked the Internet to muffle dissent. The government of Congo shut down the Internet entirely for 20 days in the wake of a presidential election marred by widespread fraud. Earlier this month, the Liberian government blocked social media platforms amid anti-corruption protests.
The pattern extends beyond Africa and the Middle East. A state-run Internet provider in Venezuela limited access to streaming services while opposition leader Juan Guaidó held a news conference, according to NetBlocks. China, notorious for its online censorship, recently restricted access to information about protests in Hong Kong.
Apart from crippling protest movements, Internet shutdowns can also deal severe blows to economies that increasingly rely on digital tools and services. West conducted a study from 2015 to 2016 that found that 81 shutdowns in 19 countries together cost at least $2.4 billion in GDP globally.
In Sudan, the ongoing Internet blockage is already dealing an economic blow. Many companies and service providers depend on the Internet to conduct business, and the lack of Internet can be paralyzing. A Sudanese newspaper estimated this week that it would cost the country upward of $1 billion or nearly 1 percent of Sudan’s GDP.
While the Internet blackout has made life difficult for protesters since early June, West said the economic side effects might have the paradoxical impact of fueling protests, especially since economic grievances sparked the uprising in the first place.
“When countries close down the Internet, they’re closing down a growing part of the economy,” he said. “It definitely creates a problem for small businesses, so that could definitely fuel political discontent.”