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Editorial: There needs to be a global coalition for tracking Internet Shutdowns

Internet Shutdowns are a disproportionate act of censorship of freedom of expression, and their deployment by various regimes takes place on an ad-hoc basis. Reasons for shutting down the Internet vary, from preventing students from cheating in exams, to preventing dissent and organisation of protests, as well as prevention of the spread of misinformation by a hapless local administration that doesn’t have the capacity to deal with mobs.

The length of Internet Shutdowns also vary: from a few hours, to over 100 days. The scale of the shutdown varies as well, from affecting parts of a city, to taking an entire country offline. The impact varies as well: from creating panic because you don’t know whether your loved ones are safe and well, to people being unable to file taxes, register their property online, apply for admissions to colleges. The cost of Internet Shutdowns is real.

One of the challenges we’ve seen with Internet Shutdowns is how difficult it is often to track them. There is very little transparency from regimes, including the Indian Government, about shutdown orders, and often information is obtained from local ISPs and telecom operators, who take great risks in sharing information about shutdowns. Right to Information requests often don’t yield the necessary information, with government departments declining to respond. The Software Freedom Law Centre, India has done a commendable job in putting together and keeping updated an Internet Shutdown Tracker, based on news reports, Right to Information Requests, and user reports. However, it is likely that they still haven’t got all shutdowns covered.

It would be useful for there to be authenticated and accurate data available. This is where key Internet infrastructure providers can play a role: companies like telecom operators, ISPs, content delivery networks, global tech companies like Google, Facebook, AWS and Salesforce, who either are aware of issues, or know when the sudden decline in Internet traffic from an area is not because of a technical issue, would do well, globally, to provide information to a global coalition on Internet Shutdowns.

This data would help with global advocacy efforts to ensure that the Internet is kept accessible to all, especially when it comes to policy-making and when shutdowns are challenged in court.

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Authenticated data would also help create awareness of how widespread the malaise of Internet Shutdowns is.

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