The Global Cost of Internet Shutdowns in 2020

Our annual report analyzes every major intentional internet shutdown in 2020 and reveals that they cost a world economy already devastated by the pandemic a further $4BN.
Soldier standing guard in a Kashmir street divided by barbed wire in Aug 2020 on the anniversary of the internet shutdown starting

UPDATED 4 January to focus on 2020 shutdowns. For historical data, see the 2019 Global Cost of Internet Shutdowns report.

Key Findings

  • $4.01BN: economic cost of internet shutdowns globally in 2020, down by 50% from 2019
  • 93 major shutdowns took place in 21 countries in 2020
  • 27,165 hours: total duration of major disruptions around the world, up 49% from the previous year.
    • Internet blackouts: 10,693 hours
    • Internet throttling: 10,920 hours
    • Social media shutdowns: 5,552 hours
  • 268M people affected by major disruptions in 2020, up 3% year-on-year
  • India most economically-impacted nation, at a cost of $2.8BN
  • Human rights impact: 42% of shutdowns were associated with additional abuses
    • 29% of all disruptions associated with restrictions on freedom of assembly
    • 15% with election interference
    • 12% with infringements on freedom of the press

Introduction

This Global Cost of Internet Shutdowns in 2020 report calculates the total economic impact of every major internet blackout and social media shutdown around the world last year.

We have expanded on last year’s report by also identifying additional human rights abuses perpetrated during these disruptions to add important context to the incidents.

We collated every national and region-wide incident globally, determined the duration of the restrictions and used the COST tool to calculate their economic impact.

This tool, developed by internet monitoring NGO Netblocks and advocacy group The Internet Society, uses indicators from the World Bank, ITU, Eurostat and US Census.

We calculated over 27,000 hours of internet shutdowns around the world in 2020 to have cost the global economy $4.01BN. This represents a 50% decrease in impact compared to $8.05BN in 2019.

Jump straight to economic impact data by region, country and by context.

Intentional major disruptions to internet access lasted 50% longer in 2020 than they did the year before. However they were mainly concentrated in poorer regions and therefore resulted in a lower overall economic impact.

While the overall impact on the global economy declined, authoritarian regimes showed little restraint in the face of a global pandemic and poorer countries were disproportionately affected.

India and Myanmar were responsible for the longest shutdowns for the second year running, with restrictions originally imposed in 2019 continuing throughout 2020. Chad again restricted access to WhatsApp after they blocked the app for more than a year in 2018/19. Combined, these countries experienced a total 64% increase in the number of hours of restrictions in 2020, despite the global public health emergency.

And if we look beyond those three most extreme cases, disruptions lasted 3.5% longer on average in 2020 (268 hours per country) than they did the year before (259 hours).

“Internet shutdowns block people from getting essential information and services. During this global health crisis, shutdowns directly harm people’s health and lives, and undermine efforts to bring the pandemic under control.” – Human Rights Watch

So what do we mean by “internet shutdown”?

We use the definition from Access Now: “An internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.”

In this report, we have included social media shutdowns, internet blackouts and severe throttling in our calculations. These types of internet disruption are defined as follows:

  • Internet blackouts: where access to the internet is completely cut off. This extreme measure cannot be directly circumvented. We have included partial blackouts, i.e. on specific ISPs, and modified our calculations accordingly in such cases.
  • Social media shutdowns: where access to popular social media platforms, such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter or YouTube has been blocked. These can typically be circumvented by using a VPN.
  • Severe throttling: where access to the internet has been reduced to 2G speeds, which permits the use of SMS and voice calls but renders modern websites and apps functionally unusable. This is an internet blackout in all but name.

While we expanded our report to include additional human rights abuses associated with each deliberate internet disruption, it’s important to make clear that internet shutdowns are themselves a violation of international human rights law. That’s because they directly infringe upon citizens’ freedom of expression, right to information, and rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

The U.N. “condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law and calls on all States to refrain from and cease such measures”. – U.N. Resolution, 2016

Internet shutdowns have also been shown to be deployed as a means of concealing violent abuses by the state.

During our analysis of every internet shutdown in 2020, we saw a continuation of the trends we identified the year before. They most often occur in response to protests or civil unrest, especially surrounding elections, as authoritarian regimes look to restrict the flow of information and maintain their grip on power.

It’s telling that every shutdown that took place around an election in 2020 coincided with accusations of election interference.

While the ongoing global pandemic makes it impossible to predict what will happen in 2021, the evidence suggests that internet shutdowns will continue to cause misery around the world.

Internet Shutdowns By Region

The following table shows the total economic cost of all major internet shutdowns in 2020 by global region where the disruptions occurred. Ranking is greatest to least economic impact, measured in USD.

Internet Shutdowns By Country

The following table shows the total economic cost of all major internet shutdowns in 2020 by country where the disruptions occurred. Ranking is greatest to least economic impact, measured in USD.

The table also indicates the nature of any additional human rights abuses perpetrated during each shutdown. A cross indicates that the human right specified was violated.

Click on the country name to jump to background information about the individual incidents of disruption.

Internet Shutdowns By Context

The following table shows the total economic cost of all major internet shutdowns in 2020 grouped by context, i.e. the nature of what prompted the authorities to impose restrictions. Ranking is greatest to least economic impact, measured in USD.

It also indicates the number of incidents in each category and the total duration of disruption in hours.

Countries with Shutdown Costs Over $500M

India

  • Internet blackouts: 1,655 hours
  • Bandwidth throttling: 7,272 hours
  • Total cost of restrictions: $2,779.3M
  • Human rights abuses: Right to peaceful assembly & freedom of press

As in previous years, India continued to restrict internet access more than any other country – over 75 times in 2020. The majority of these short blackouts were highly-targeted, affecting groups of villages or individual city districts and so were not included in this report, which focuses on larger region-wide shutdowns. The true economic cost is therefore likely to be even higher than the $2.8BN we have calculated.

In Kashmir, authorities lifted restrictions in March 2020, seven months on from a controversial decision made by Prime Minister Nerendra Modi to strip India’s only Muslim-majority region of its autonomy. However, after the restrictions were lifted authorities continued to severely throttle internet speeds, with citizens only able to access 2G connections.

During the longest internet shutdown in a democracy, the arbitrary arrest of senior Kashmiri political leaders, lawyers, rights activist and students became widespread.

The restrictions have negatively impacted the distribution of medicine, businesses and schools.

“The limiting of networks to 2G has made it impossible for online classes to function adequately. Graduate students and teachers have been unable to participate in conferences or have their papers published, causing willful harm to their careers and violating the rights to education.” – Human Rights Watch

Indian authorities continue to justify the lasting restrictions as “absolutely necessary in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India”.

Belarus

  • Internet blackouts: 218 hours
  • Total cost of restrictions: $336.4M
  • Human rights abuses: Right to peaceful assembly, election interference, press freedoms

Authorities in Belarus restricted access to the internet in August and September as president Alexander Lukashenko attempted to stifle protests following a controversial presidential election.

The UK’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, has called for a re-run of the election following the publication of an independent report that confirmed August’s election results were “falsified.”

During the internet restrictions, there were multiple reports of police brutality, torture, and attacks on the press. In one report, Amnesty International said police had “brutally tortured hundreds of peaceful protesters.”

In response, protesters turned to privacy apps including Telegram and VPNs in a bid to continue organising protests. During the period of restrictions, we documented a 650% spike in VPN demand compared to the 30-day average. This demand is typically focused on popular free VPN services, many of which are unsafe.

Countries with Shutdown Costs of $100M - $250M

Yemen

  • Internet blackouts: 912 hours
  • Total cost of restrictions: $236.8M

In January, damage to an undersea cable reduced Yemen’s internet capacity by 80%. Some have claimed it was a deliberate act of sabotage by the Houthi rebels that control large swathes of the country, however this allegation remains unconfirmed.

Access Now have written, “regardless of who or what is responsible, Yemenis were effectively cut off from one another and the rest of the world. The continued disconnections have become increasingly dangerous with the continued spread of COVID-19.”

The United Nations has described the conflict in Yemen to be the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

Myanmar

  • Internet blackouts: 5,160 hours
  • Bandwidth throttling: 3,648 hours
  • Total cost of restrictions: $189.9M
  • Human rights abuses: Press freedoms

Restrictions in the Chin and Rakhine regions of Myanmar continued in 2020, with an internet blackout continuing until early August. However, after the restrictions were lifted authorities continued to throttle internet speeds.

Human Rights Watch claimed the restrictions have “meant that people in some villages are unaware of the Covid-19 outbreak.”

In an article for TIME magazine, Kyaw Hsan Hlaing, a student, activist and freelance journalist from Rakhine State, described how the restrictions had impacted their livelihood: “Although 2G services were restored this August, 3G and 4G networks remain blocked in all but one of the affected townships, leaving people unable to perform a basic internet search. The government says these restrictions aim to hinder the activities of the Arakan Army, but it has also imperiled the safety of many civilians who lack access to vital information.”

Azerbaijan

  • Social media shutdowns: 1,128 hours
  • Total cost of restrictions: $122.6M
  • Human rights abuses: Press freedoms

Between September 27 and November 12, Azerbaijan authorities blocked access to Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. The restrictions occurred during the eruption of violent conflict with Armenia over the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Multiple human rights abuses are thought to have occurred during the conflict, with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both claiming that war crimes had been committed.

“Internet shutdowns restrict access to vital information, prevent people from communicating with loved ones, limit the effectiveness of emergency responders, and suppress reporting of human rights violations.

Especially during times of conflict and unrest, dependable internet access can help civilians access credible information which can be the difference between life and death.” Access Now

During the period of restrictions, we documented a 1,646% increase in VPN demand as citizens attempted to circumvent the blocks.

Ethiopia

  • Internet blackouts: 1,536 hours
  • Total cost of restrictions: $111.3M
  • Human rights abuses: Right to peaceful assembly, election interference, press freedoms

Ethiopia continued its disturbing trend of restricting the access to the internet during politically sensitive moments in 2020.

For more than three weeks between June and July, the internet was inaccessible as protests swept the country following the killing of popular singer Hachalu Hundessa.

A report by the United Nations said that at least 166 people were killed and at least 2,000 people, including opposition politicians, had been arrested during the protests.

The June and July restrictions were followed by another communications blackout in the Tigray region after violent conflict broke out in November. The restrictions significantly limited the work of humanitarian agencies during the conflict and prevented citizens from communicating with their relatives in the region.

“The phone and internet shutdown has made it difficult for journalists and aid workers to document and confirm reports of the situation on the ground, Ethiopians outside the region have also been cut off from their relatives in Tigray” – Human Rights Watch

Countries with Shutdown Costs of $10M - $100M

Sudan

  • Internet blackouts: 36 hours
  • Total cost of restrictions: $68.7M

Authorities in Sudan once again restricted access to the internet in 2020 after similar disruptions cost the country almost $2 billion in 2019.

The restrictions in 2020 were significantly shorter than in the previous year and, like in Algeria, were justified as a means of preventing students from cheating during exams.

According to an article published by Global Voices: “The mechanism used for this shutdown – disabling mobile data – was the same one used in the 2019 shutdown, when local internet services provides (ISPs) in Sudan only disabled the access point name or APN.”

Turkey

  • Social media shutdowns: 18 hours
  • Total cost of restrictions: $51.1M

Following an attack against Turkish troops in Idlib, Syria on Thursday 27 February, the Turkish government blocked access to social media platforms Facebook, Whatsapp, Youtube, Instagram and Twitter.

The cut began from 11:30pm local time, with connectivity improving by 5:00pm the following day (2:00pm UTC). The social media cut led to an 810% increase in VPN demand, compared to the 30-day average prior to the ban.

Online disinformation was cited as the basis for the block amid a dispute over the number of casualties suffered in Idlib, a southern border city with Turkey.

Syria

  • Internet blackouts: 79 hours
  • Total cost of restrictions: $35.9M

Syria has repeatedly shut down the internet during exam periods, a practice that had began in 2016. In 2020, connectivity was disrupted for 4-6 hour periods in June, July, and August as exams took place.

The Syrian Ministry of Education justified the measure as a “precautionary measure to ensure [the students’] health and safety, in a manner than ensures the smooth running of the examination process, its transparency and integrity.”

Tanzania

  • Internet blackouts: 264 hours
  • Social media shutdowns: 168 hours
  • Total cost of restrictions: $27.5M
  • Human rights abuses: Right to peaceful assembly, election interference, press freedoms

In October, authorities in Tanzania disrupted access to social media platforms on the eve of the country’s presidential elections.

According to Netblocks, the disruption meant “Twitter, WhatsApp, backend servers for Instagram and some Google services including Gmail and Translate [were] generally or partially unavailable.”

There was also a partial blackout in the run up to the election and several days after, with internet accessibility reduced to 90% of normal levels.

Twitter has been blocked since the initial social media shutdown, although the disruptions have not been consistent. During this period, we documented an enormous 18,823% spike in demand for VPNs.

Chad

  • Internet blackouts: 672 hours
  • Social media shutdowns: 3,936 hours
  • Total cost of restrictions: $23.1M

In 2020, Chad continued its long trend of blocking access to social media platforms and restricting citizens’ access to the internet.

Authorities justified the restrictions by saying it was to prevent the spread of messages “inciting hate and division” after videos of a military officer opening fire on a civilian mechanic began circulating, according to Access Now.

Restrictions on WhatsApp were eased in 2019 after one of the longest social media shutdown in the world. However, since August 2020, these restrictions have been applied once again.

Countries with Shutdown Costs of $1M - $10M

Algeria

  • Internet blackouts: 2 hours
  • Social media shutdowns: 24 hours
  • Total cost of restrictions: $9.6M

Algeria once again restricted access to the internet during exams in 2020. A 24-hour social media shutdown was followed by a two-hour internet blackout in September, according to Netblocks. In response, we documented an 828% increase in VPN demand.

The restrictions were justified as a means to stop cheating but advocacy groups have claimed they are a disproportionate response. As Access Now have written, it’s not just students who were unable to access the internet: “Everyone will be disconnected, from businesses to emergency workers, to hospitals and government agencies, all to stop students from sharing exam answers with each other.”

The country has a long history of shutting down the internet during exams, with restrictions costing almost $200M in 2019.

Guinea

  • Internet blackouts: 102 hours
  • Social media shutdowns: 136 hours
  • Total cost of restrictions: $6.1M
  • Human rights abuses: Election Interference

The internet was restricted in March and October 2020 in Guinea during elections. On both occasions authorities implemented social media shutdowns and internet blackouts to prevent the free flow of information.

In March, a controversial referendum was held that would allow president Alpha Condé to extend his term by another 12 years and in October, he won reelection with more than double the number of votes as his nearest rival, according to Reuters. Our team observed a rise in VPN demand surrounding the time of each election by 1,257% and 3,043% respectively as citizens prepared for the restrictions.

According to Freedom House, elections in Guinea have been “plagued by violence, delays, and other flaws” since the country returned to civilian rule in 2010.

Jordan

  • Social media shutdowns: 92 hours
  • Total cost of restrictions: $4.9M

The Ministry of Education blocked seven popular social media platforms: Telegram, Facebook, Viber, Line, Tango, Whatsapp and IMO daily between 10am and 2pm from July 1 and July 23, 2020, which coincided with national high school exams.

The Telecommunications Authorities tried to justify the restrictions, stating: “supreme national interest and cooperation must be made so that this process is correct and transparent that reflects the students’ abilities.”

The Jordan Open Source Association, however, criticized the move and called for an alternative method to, “prevent fraud without compromising citizens’ rights to have access to the Internet without restrictions”.

Venezuela

  • Social media shutdowns: 2 hours
  • Total cost of restrictions: $2.4M
  • Human rights abuses: Election interference

State-run internet provider ABA CANTV restricted major social media platforms Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, Twitter on Jan 5 2020 as the members of the opposition, lead by Juan Guaido, were blocked from entering the National Assembly ahead of a key leadership vote. This caused a spike in VPN demand by 1,731% as locals attempted to circumvent the communications restrictions.

The National Assembly is the sole branch of the Venezuelan government still in opposition hands.

The press workers’ union reported that, “two journalists were attacked and robbed of their equipment by armed militias linked to the government”.

Iran

  • Internet blackouts: 9 hours
  • Total cost of restrictions: $2M
  • Human rights abuses: Right to peaceful assembly

In July, October and November, authorities in Iran restricted citizens’ access to the internet. While the overall cost of these restrictions was not comparable with the previous year, hundreds of thousands remained cut-off during politically sensitive moments.

The first instance was recorded the day after two Kurdish men were executed in Urumieh prison in West Azerbaijan province. The second was recorded when protests broke out in Tehran following the death of the singer Mohammed Reza Sahajarin. The last was imposed on November 16, coinciding with the first anniversary of the 2019 internet blackout across Iran, where widespread protests took place in response to a spike in fuel prices and increasing political oppression.

Countries with Shutdown Costs of Under $1M

Iraq

Internet connectivity was severed for 8 hours in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq’s Sulaymaniyah province on December 7 following clashes between protesters and security forces over late salaries, high unemployment and declining living conditions.

Security forces used “tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and live bullets, which resulted in the killing of eight people and wounding 54 others” according to Middle East Monitor.

Somalia

An internet shutdown was reported in Somalia between July 26-27 over a duration of 31 hours. The blackout began following the unexpected removal of long-serving Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire. The ousting drew criticism from the European Union and US Embassy, who denounced the removal as irregular and unconstitutional.

Burundi

In May, authorities in Burundi implemented a social media shutdown as citizens went to the polls. Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp were all affected during the 48 hour restriction, according to Netblocks. During this period, we documented a 5,686% spike in demand for VPN.

According to the New York Times, “Human rights groups said they had received reports of harassment of opposition members and incidents of voter fraud, but with social media blocked, they were unable to confirm them.”

Kyrgyzstan

A partial internet cut followed after protests broke out in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, due to alleged election interference in Kyrgyzstan’s recent parliamentary elections.

The results were annulled following widespread protests which were met by violent clashes with the police, which left hundreds injured and at least one person dead.

Several members of the press were attacked while covering the vote and ensuing unrest, with harassment and gunfire from the special forces.

Togo

As the polls closed on election day, restrictions were placed on Facebook and Whatsapp through Togo’s main state operator, Togo Telecom.

The timing of the social media shutdown coincided with the key opposition leader’s home being surrounded by security forces under the guise of Agbeyomem Kodjo’s “personal security”.

Methodology

We reviewed every documented internet and social media shutdown globally in 2020. We included national shutdowns along with regional disruptions that on a sufficient scale to be economically significant. For the purposes of this research, internet outages due to natural disasters or infrastructural failures were not included, nor were outage days prior to 2020 for ongoing incidents.

Shutdown nature, duration and severity was sourced from Netblocks real-time graphic data and reports, IODA and the SFLC.IN Internet Shutdown Tracker. Additional open-sourced information used came from Access Now and reputable news reports.

Shutdown costs were derived from the Netblocks and the Internet Society’s Cost of Shutdown Tool based on the Brookings Institution method. Regional shutdown costs were calculated by determining the region’s economic output as a proportion of national GDP.

Regional shutdown costs were calculated as a proportion of national costs, based on a region’s economic contribution to national GDP. In the case of Myanmar, where official regional GDP data was not available, costs were based on the internet users in the affected area as a proportion of total internet users.

Mobile-only or carrier-specific outages were calculated as a proportion of the above costs based on the most up-to-date market-share information publicly available.

Internet user data sourced from the World Bank and government reports.

Download the 2020 cost of internet shutdowns data sheet as a Google Sheet or as a PDF.


Main image: A paramilitary trooper stands on guard on the first anniversary of the abrogation of semi-autonomous status of Jammu & Kashmir, India, on 5th August, 2020. Credit: SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Live News.

The authors of all our investigations abide by the journalists’ code of conduct.