How to shut down the internet – and how to fight back

Internet shutdowns come in different forms, ranging from the hammer of a complete blackout to screwdriver-style arrangements targeting certain populations. These are some methods used by governments around the world to switch off the internet.

The Hammer

The nuclear option. On 5 August 2019, India’s Hindu Nationalist government revoked the special status of the Kashmir region, unilaterally wiping out its autonomy. It also sent in thousands of army troops and severed internet, mobile and telephone connections. The region would remain offline for 552 days, the world’s longest shutdown to date.

This type of extreme option is used across many countries every year on a short-term basis for reasons as trivial as trying to stop cheating in examinations. In Syria, the entire network including mobile internet is blacked out when students do their high-school matriculation exams, while parts of India take down the mobile network for trainee teacher exams.

A woman uses her mobile phone in Srinagar in February 2021 after internet services in Jammu and Kashmir were restored after a 552-day shutdown. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Screwdriver approaches

Speed throttling: Speed throttling slows down the internet so that 4G suddenly becomes a glacial 2G. This can stop or delay news of atrocities or human rights violations from emerging as internet speeds are too slow for streaming or uploading video. Speed throttling can be combined with approaches that deprive certain groups of internet access; for example, geographically based blocks targeting particularly restive provinces or blocks on private internet connections.

The latter happened in Iran in February 2012 on the third anniversary of the Twitter Revolution, when the platform was used to organise street protests in opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s controversial election victory. Private internet connections were blocked, while state-run internet users continued to enjoy normal speeds. This meant that protest organisers could no longer share information or mobilise, while allowing financial and state-run institutions to continue operating.

Blacklisting or blocklisting: Blocking access to a particular platform is a common tactic to stem the flow of information and is called blacklisting – or more recently blocklisting, as the cyber community moves towards using more inclusive language. In Myanmar on 4 February, three days after the coup, the military blocked Facebook, effectively shutting most Burmese from their primary gateway to the internet. The ministry of communications and information justified the block in the name of national stability, writing “fake news and misinformation and … misunderstanding among people by using Facebook”.

The Facebook ban was devastating to small business owners who were heavily reliant on the platform. “My mom cooked food and sold it on her Facebook page and account, so she couldn’t do her online business,” said one woman in Yangon, describing how the ban destroyed her mother’s business in one fell swoop.

A 2021 protest in Mandalay, Myanmar, against the military coup. The junta imposed tough restrictions on mobile internet and social media platforms after seizing power. Photograph: SH/Penta Press/Rex/Shutterstock

Whitelisting or allowlisting: This transforms the internet into an intranet. Rather than blacklisting things on the open internet, websites are approved on a closed intranet, effectively creating a walled garden for government-sanctioned platforms. “It’s inverting the normal of the internet, where everything is accessible and only certain things might be restricted or blocked,” says Access Now’s Raman Singh. In Myanmar, this allowed military-run interests to operate and crippled business to restart, while continuing to stymie the communication functions offered by the internet.

After this, the military junta began to trial whitelisting. Burmese were given access to just 1,200 military-sanctioned internet sites, which included banking and finance sites, gaming and entertainment sites like Netflix and YouTube, and some news sites like the New York Times. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter remained inaccessible. Connectivity returned, but the number of sites accessible was drastically lower. “Effectively what they’ve done is recreated the censorship board, but for the online space,” says Free Expression Myanmar’s Oliver Spencer, referring to the censorship body that had operated for 50 years until 2012.

A firewall: China’s firewall is an example of extreme whitelisting. Although it has used the kill switch in the past, Beijing appears to have moved away from this method, instead depending on sophisticated internet controls. In 2009, Beijing switched off internet access to the Xinjiang region for 10 months after riots fuelled by ethnic tensions. This was seen as a move to stop political organising and limit news of the ensuing crackdown, which punished the entire population.

However, even as the Communist party has set up massive political indoctrination centres, impounding at least a million Uyghurs, it has not shut off the internet in the region again. One factor is the efficacy of Beijing’s controls over the internet, which means that the blunt tool of total shutdown is no longer necessary; the monitoring and censorship provided by China’s great firewall effectively prevents most Chinese internet users from accessing the global web, while limiting the content they post.

“They don’t need to make this kind of grubby, ham-fisted shutting down of a major tool of economic activity,” says Simon Angus from the IP Observatory. “The internet is their friend for both messaging and communication.”

China’s great firewall effectively blocks most domestic internet users from accessing the global internet. Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

In one version of the future, following China’s lead, internet shutdowns may no longer be necessary as governments perfect their control over their own respective internets. This trend points towards a “splinternet” instead of a global internet, where the internet is broken up into a series of intranets governed on a sovereign – sometimes hyperlocal or regional – basis.

But government control of the web faces one new hurdle: satellite internet.

Satellite internet

Elon Musk’s Starlink technology uses constellations of satellites in low-earth orbit to beam high-speed internet access into Ukraine, which allows the government to continue communications and bypass Russian servers, even as Russia destroys and diverts terrestrial internet infrastructure. The country’s military communications, combat warfare and all its critical infrastructure run from 15,000 Starlink satellite kits, which also allow President Vlodymyr Zelensky to broadcast his daily videos, bolstering domestic morale and garnering international support.

Theoretically, satellite internet service such as SpaceX’s Starlink could render internet shutdowns a thing of the past, although in practice this is not yet replicable at scale for the entire population of Ukraine. However, the promise that satellite internet services can allow users to transcend internet blocks is demonstrated in Ukraine every day. It’s being watched closely by Chinese researchers, who are developing new anti-satellite weapons.

This story was funded by the Judith Neilson Institute