Sunday, May 29, 2022

Internet Shutdowns: An Increasingly Popular Measure Used By Dictatorships

Cutting off or partially or completely shutting down the Internet has become a tool that seems to be very handy for authoritarian regimes.

The Cuban crisis of the last few weeks, where for the first time in years there have been the first visible protests against the Castro regime, has been the latest case. But the assiduity of these control mechanisms has not ceased to increase in the last decade.

In the case of Cuba, the blockades have been occurring randomly changing on social networks, specific information websites and applications such as WhatsApps from user to user. As Cuban journalist and activist Yoani Sanchez recently wrote for the Rest of World information platform, the recent blockades from the Communist Party, clumsy in many cases, show that the Internet has long since won the game, with a good part of the Cuban population already informed about how, despite the very high price of a connection on the island, using a VPN can bypass most of the blockades of Miguel Diaz Canel’s government. In other words, it is not as restrictive and certainly does not seem as technically advanced as China’s Great Firewall.

Despite the high costs of Internet use, still prohibitive for most of the population, Cubans found ways to get a glimpse of the World Wide Web. After that, it became much more difficult to reduce the Internet to a few selected government-affiliated sites and applications. Unlike in China, where Communist Party leaders were quick to create a sterilized and monitored network, Cuba’s old Castroites were slow to realize the new enemy attacking them.

And that in Cuba, a country that only had access to the network since 2012 and mobile internet since 2018, controlling internet access seems quite simple. There is only one submarine cable connecting the island to the rest of the world, and its traffic is controlled by the only state telecom operator, ETECSA, which offers the accounts to connect and can monitor all connections the not using HTTPS and therefore not being encrypted.

The government also owns the ground stations capable of communicating with the satellites that transmit internet. However, as revealed by NetBlocks data, it seems that the Cuban government has not opted for a severe blockade, but rather an itinerant one, surely to avoid evidence, and communications have continued to leave the island.

The example of censorship and internet cut-off Cuba is close to Spain and Latin America for obvious reasons, but its case is only one of between 200 and 150 worldwide annually since 2018, according to the Keep It On report by the organization Access Now.

Countries per number of internet blockings in 2020, according to Access Now

The germ of the fact of blocking the Internet has its origin, at least as far as is known, in the 2011 Arab Spring in Egypt. Later it would become recurrent in the armed conflicts in Syria, Myanmar and Uganda.

As explained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting freedom on the Internet, total shutdowns are actually a clumsy move and the worst-case scenario for any regime: in addition to disrupting protesters, they also disrupt the economy and hinder the functioning of the government itself.

In fact, it is much more technically complicated to cut some URLs and specific applications, as China has been doing for years, and Machiavellianly more effective.

The EFF report notes that there are several methods used to block content on the Internet. Government agents can block or manipulate domain names, filter and block specific keywords, block a specific IP address or urge providers to remove content or search results, similar to what happens in Spain with copyright-infringing content.