For the past five weeks, thousands of Iranians, led by courageous young women, have taken to the streets of dozens of cities around the country, driven to action by the case of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman who died while in the custody of the country’s Morality Police. At tremendous risk to their safety, these young people are demanding an end to years of oppression, burning their hijabs, shearing their hair, and marching in solidarity as the protest anthem Baraye, with its chorus “for women, life, freedom,” echoes through the streets. Authorities have responded with a brutal crackdown in which over 230 Iranians are believed to have died already. The government has also instituted strict internet controls, blocking access to social media and messaging apps, as well as knocking the entire web offline for hours at a time in an effort to stymie organizing and conceal the extent of the protests and the police response.
As we keep our eyes trained on the developing situation in Iran, it is critical to acknowledge that it is not an isolated event. Even since the protests in Iran began, Cuba has cut access to the internet twice in response to protests over the government’s handling of the response to Hurricane Ian. Around the world, a troubling number of nations have severely curtailed internet freedom, including full shutdowns, as their default response to popular protests. The most repressive of these regimes learn from each other, sharing technology and in some cases even personnel to establish an ironclad grip on the web and their citizens.
At least 225 internet shutdowns have taken place in response to popular protests since 2016. Access Now, a digital human rights advocacy group that tracks internet shutdowns, reports that protests and political instability were the cause of 128 of 182 confirmed internet shutdowns in 2021. And severe internet restrictions, including complete shutdowns, have followed popular protests in at least five countries in just the past 10 months.
Internet shutdowns can have significant impacts on the economy, health care, and education even in the best of times, but when they are instituted during crises, they can cost lives. Curbing the use of internet shutdowns—and the severe second-order consequences that attend them—requires a united approach that recognizes the underlying impulses and technologies, as well as the struggle of those impacted.
Repressive governments have sought full control over the internet from the moment it was introduced, but shutdowns have emerged as a tactic in the past decade. The idea has spread rapidly, however, and the number of shutdowns ballooned from just a handful in 2011 to a peak of 213 in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic forced the world into isolation, curtailing the popular demonstrations that have so often led to shutdowns in the first place.
In 2021, when we at Jigsaw interviewed people who had been impacted by internet shutdowns, one individual from the Democratic Republic of Congo highlighted the particular risk faced by remote villagers who, without access to the internet during shutdowns, could find themselves in the middle of heated combat. “Women are raped,” he told us. “Villages are burned down.” Another activist, a Rohingya refugee in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, told us how he used WhatsApp to monitor the activities of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in refugee camps in order to evade their attacks. He underscored the risk internet shutdowns posed to his life. Several months after we last spoke, he was assassinated. Iranians, even those not participating in the demonstrations, now face similar risks due to the lack of situational awareness created by the ongoing internet restrictions.