investigations

The Global Cost of Internet Shutdowns in 2019

Our report analyzes every major internet shutdown around the world in 2019 and reveals this growing trend cost the global economy over $8BN last year.
Iraq protests November 2019
Samuel Woodhams
Simon Migliano

Key Findings

  • $8.05BN: economic cost of internet shutdowns globally in 2019 – an increase of 235% since 2015/16
  • 122 major shutdowns took place in 21 countries during 2019
  • 18,225 hours: total duration of major shutdowns around the world
    • Internet blackouts: 11,857 hours
    • Social media shutdowns: 6,368 hours
  • Iraq: most economically-impacted nation, followed by Sudan and India
  • WhatsApp: most-blocked platform with 6,236 total hours of disruption

Introduction

This Global Cost of Internet Shutdowns in 2019 report identifies the total economic impact of every major internet blackout and social media shutdown around the world last year.

We collated every national and region-wide incident, 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 18,000 hours of internet shutdowns around the world in 2019 to have cost the global economy $8.05BN. This represents a 235% increase in impact compared to $2.4BN in 2015/16, according to the most recently available analysis.

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

We also found that there were more internet shutdowns in 2019 than ever before. We included in this report 122 major incidents, ie that were national or region-wide in their impact, that took place during the last 12 months.

However once you include the 90-plus smaller blackouts in India plus other localized and partial restrictions, it’s clear that the previous year’s record total of 196 documented shutdowns has been surpassed.

So what do we mean by “internet shutdown”?

“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.” – Access Now

In this report, we have included social media shutdowns and internet blackouts 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.
  • Social media shutdowns: where access to popular social media platforms, such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter or YouTube have been blocked. These can typically be circumvented by using a VPN.

During our analysis of every internet shutdown in 2019, some general trends emerged. 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.

In economic terms, disruptions not only affect the formal economy but also the informal, especially in less well-developed nations. There can also be lasting damage with the loss of investor confidence and faltering development, all of which makes our estimates conservative.

On the human rights side, these shutdowns clearly impact citizens’ freedom of expression and the right to information and may even result in an increase in violence.

Despite their negative impact on the global economy, human rights and democratic processes, there is little to suggest that internet shutdowns will stop in 2020.

Cost By Region

The following table shows the total economic cost of all major internet shutdowns in 2019 by global region, as measured in USD.

Region Shutdown Duration (Hrs) Shutdown Total Cost
Middle East & N. Africa 577 $3.135BN
Sub-Saharan Africa 7,800 $2.16BN
Asia 9,677 $1.68BN
South America 171 $1.07BN
Global 18,225 $8.05BN

Cost by Country

The following table shows the total economic cost of all major internet shutdowns in 2019 by country where the disruptions occurred. Ranking is highest to lowest economic impact, measured in USD.

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

Rank Country Shutdown Duration (Hrs) Shutdown Total Cost Internet Users
1 Iraq 263 $2,319.5M 18.8M
2 Sudan 1,560 $1,866.3M 12.5M
3 India – specific regions [1] 4,196 $1,329.8M 8.4M
4 Venezuela 171 $1,072.6M 20.7M
5 Iran 240 $611.7M 49.0M
6 Algeria 50 $199.8M 19.7M
7 Indonesia [2] 416 $187.7M 29.4M
8 Chad [3] 4,728 $125.9M 1.0M
9 Sri Lanka 337 $83.9M 7.1M
10 Myanmar – Rakhine, Chin 4,880 $75.2M 0.1M
11 DRC 456 $61.2M 7.0M
12 Ethiopia 346 $56.8M 19.5M
13 Zimbabwe 144 $34.5M 4.5M
14 Mauritania 264 $13.8M 0.9M
15 Pakistan – Azad Kashmir 88 $5.6M No data
16 Egypt 24 $3.8M 43.9M
17 Kazakhstan 7.5 $2.6M 13.9M
18 Bénin 21 $1.1M 1.6M
19 Gabon 29 $1.1M 1.0M
20 Eritrea 240 $0.4M 0.1M
21 Liberia 12 $0.1M 377K

[1] Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Meghalaya, Rajasthan, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh only. Back to top of table.

[2] 338 hours of specified duration applied to Papua region only. Back to top of table.

[3] Duration/total cost figures refer to 2019 impact only and do not take into consideration preceding months of restrictions over 2018. Back to top of table.

Blocks by Platform

The following table shows the total duration of social media shutdowns by platform in 2019. Note the majority of these disruptions took place concurrently.

Platform Shutdown Duration (Hrs)
WhatsApp 6,236
Facebook 6,208
Instagram 6,193
Twitter 5,860
Youtube 684

Countries with Shutdown Costs Over $1BN

Iraq

  • Internet blackouts: 209 hours
  • Social media shutdowns: 54 hours
  • Total cost of shutdowns: $2,319.5M

The most significant internet blackouts were in October amid anti-government protests due to rising unemployment, failing public services and corruption. The blackouts formed part of a brutal government clampdown that claimed at least 220 lives and injured many more. Over 600 people were wounded on October 3 alone.

“In cutting communication links, authorities hoped to curtail the demonstrators’ ability to organise” – The Guardian

Internet shutdowns restrict citizens’ ability to raise awareness of police brutality, however research suggests it may actually add to violence.

The government also restricted access to the internet earlier in the year in a bid to prevent cheating in national exams in June. This was repeated in September.

Sudan

  • Internet blackouts: 864 hours
  • Social media shutdowns: 696 hours
  • Total cost of shutdowns: $1,866.3M

January- February: A 68-day social media shutdown that began in December 2018 (NB: we’re only counting financial loss from Jan 1 2019) was implemented after protests erupted across the country calling on Omar al-Bashir, who had been in power for thirty years, to step down.

“Since December, internet users in Sudan have resorted to VPN circumvention tools to remain connected to social platforms” – Netblocks

April: Social media blocks were re-introduced as demonstrations increased in intensity. The restrictions tried – and failed – to stop the circulation of posts like the tweet below, which was retweeted almost 20,000 times, becoming iconic in the process.

Access was restored after al-Bashir finally declared that he would step down after top military generals turned against the ruler.

June – July: As protests continued following a military coup, the internet was restricted to prevent the flow of information, such as the recovery of at least 40 bodies from the River Nile. This persisted until the protests ended with the formal establishment of a transitional government at the beginning of August.

India

Specific regions only

  • Internet blackouts: 4,196 hours
  • Social media shutdowns: N/A
  • Total cost of shutdowns: $1,329.8M

India imposes internet restrictions more often than any other country, with over 100 shutdowns documented in 2019. As they tend to be highly-targeted, even down to the level of blacking out individual city districts for a few hours while security forces try to restore order, many of these incidents have not been included in this report, which instead focused on larger region-wide shutdowns. The full economic impact is therefore likely to be higher even than our $1.3 billion figure.

The most significant disruptions have been in the turbulent Kashmir region, where after intermittent shutdowns in the first half of the year, access has been blocked since August, with no end to restrictions in sight.

The [Kashmir] shutdown is now the longest ever imposed in a democracy – The Washington Post

Indian authorities have attempted to justify the digital blackout on national security grounds due to unrest in Kashmir following their controversial decision to strip India’s only Muslim-majority region of its autonomy.

Elsewhere violent reactions in December to another change to Indian law, which has been viewed as another bid to marginalize the country’s Muslim minority, prompted internet blackouts across many districts of Uttar Pradesh, along with the nearby regions of Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya.

The other major shutdown also had its root in religious tensions. A Supreme Court decision in November ruling on the dispute over the Ayodhya holy site that’s simmered between Hindus and Muslims for over a century prompted shutdowns “to avoid the spread of misinformation” in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, and also in the Rajashthan region.

Venezuela

  • Internet blackouts: 60 hours
  • Social media shutdowns: 111 hours
  • Total cost of shutdowns: $1,072.6M

The Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro responded with aggressive, rolling internet restrictions when the nation was plunged into constitutional crisis in January after National Assembly President Juan Guaidó disputed the presidency by declaring himself interim president of the country. This was in response to elections that had been widely denounced as illegitimate.

Shutdowns were highly strategic. Frequent, short-lived and highly targeted blocks of social media platforms aimed to prevent live streams of Guaidó being widely shared. YouTube was the most heavily targeted platform, often being affected for just an hour.

They occurred when Guaidó had planned press conferences, was speaking in the National Assembly or addressing crowds during protests.

Cantv, the country’s largest telecom firm, is a state-owned operator, which made it easier to implement nationwide internet shutdowns.

Several nationwide electricity blackouts – not included in our figures as these were unintentional – also prevented internet access during the crisis.

Notably, Wikipedia was also blocked in January, following an “edit war” over the legitimate president.

Countries with Shutdown Costs of $100M - $1BN

Iran

  • Internet blackouts: 240 hours
  • Social media shutdowns: N/A
  • Total cost of shutdowns: $611.7M

Iranian authorities shut down internet access in November following the outbreak of widespread protests in response to fuel prices being raised by at least 50%.

It took at least 24 hours for the internet shutdown to take full effect, due to the number of Internet Service Providers active in the country.

At least 304 people died in the protests according to Amnesty, adding further weight to the claim that authoritarian governments are using internet shutdowns to prevent images and videos of their repressive actions and human rights abuses from leaking to the outside world.

There was a further 24-hour shutdown in December due to anti-government protests.

Notably, Iran has also been developing its own intranet, the National Information Network, for several years, in similar fashion to Russia’s RUnet.

Algeria

  • Internet blackouts: 47 hours
  • Social media shutdowns: 3 hours
  • Total cost of shutdowns: $199.8M

June: Algerians were denied internet access while students were sitting exams. This was the third year in a row that such extreme measures were enforced under the guise of preventing cheating.

August: Youtube was blocked for three hours following the publication of a video by an ex-Algerian defence minister calling for the public to oust military leader Ahmed Gaid Salah.

September: A 36-hour internet blackout was imposed at the same time as the announcement of presidential elections to be held in December 2019.

It’s likely that this was intended to prevent the boil-over of months-long protests calling for electoral reform and the removal from power of former long-time president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s military loyalist, including Gaid Salah, prior to any vote.

Indonesia

  • Internet blackouts: 338 hours
  • Social media shutdowns: 78
  • Total cost of shutdowns: $187.7M

National: The 78-hour social media shutdown was implemented as riots erupted in Jakarta in May after presidential election results were announced.

“The restrictions come as Indonesia grapples with political tension following the release of the results of its presidential election on Tuesday. Defeated candidate Prabowo Subianto said he will challenge the result in the constitutional court.” – TechCrunch

The government tried to justify the shutdown as necessary to stop the spread of disinformation and “fake news” that would further inflame tensions.

Papua: Indonesia’s major internet blackouts were confined to the Papua region, where there were two separate shutdowns following civil unrest. While one was very short, the other lasted two weeks.

“The region of West Papua has suffered the most serious civil unrest in years since mid-August over perceived racial and ethnic discrimination.” – Al Jazeera

Chad

  • Internet blackouts: N/A
  • Social media shutdowns: 4,728 hours
  • Total cost of shutdowns: $125.9M

Chad endured the longest social media shutdown in the world; starting in March 2018 ending in July 2019.

The situation was so severe that Internet Without Borders was forced to intervene and campaign to provide VPN and data access to human rights defenders in the country (full disclosure: Top10VPN.com was a major donor).

Social media restrictions began after the country’s parliament recommended a constitutional change that would allow President Idriss Déby to stay in power until 2033.

It should be noted that the economic impact of this record internet shutdown is greatly reduced by the fact that only 6.5% of the population has access to the internet.

Countries with Shutdown Costs of $25M - $100M

Sri Lanka

  • Internet blackouts: N/A
  • Social media shutdowns: 337 hours
  • Total cost of shutdowns: $83.9M

Following a devastating series of bomb attacks on churches and hotel on Easter Sunday that claimed 253 lives, the Sri Lankan government blocked access to social media under the guise of preventing the spread of misinformation.

This largely took place over two main periods, first over 10 days immediately following the the bombings and then again two weeks later for another five days.

As Sri Lankans depend particularly heavily on Facebook and WhatsApp for communication, VPN usage rocketed dramatically.

Myanmar

  • Internet blackouts: 4,632 hours
  • Social media shutdowns: N/A
  • Total cost of shutdowns: $75.2M

The Myanmar government blocked internet access in nine townships in the Rakhine and Chin regions in June 2019. These were lifted in five of the townships in September but restrictions are ongoing in the other four, despite international protests by human rights organisations.

The poverty-stricken and isolated region in west Myanmar, which borders Bangladesh, has a turbulent history. It was the home of the Rohingya Muslims before sectarian violence and offical mistreatment caused hundreds of thousands to flee in 2017, prompting the world’s biggest refugee crisis. Today, it remains a civil warzone as local insurgents the Arakan Army fight for greater autonomy.

The fear is that the internet blackout is shrouding further human rights abuses as military intervention intensifies in the region.

“Such telecommunications embargoes can be designed to foil members of the political opposition… and they can particularly hurt vulnerable communities in conflict areas, who depend on internet connections to keep them out of the crossfire or publicize abuses in remote locations.” – New York Times

DRC

  • Internet blackouts: 456 hours
  • Social media shutdowns: N/A
  • Total cost of shutdowns: $61.2M

The internet – and SMS – was shut off completely for 20 days in the Democratic Republic of Congo following elections. Officials claimed it was to “avoid chaos”.

The shutdown prompted an international outcry and was denounced by the United Nations, who called on the DRC goverment to restore access:

“A general network shutdown is in clear violation of international law and cannot be justified by any means.” – the U.N.

Ethiopia

  • Internet blackouts: 274 hours
  • Social media shutdowns: 72 hours
  • Total cost of shutdowns: $56.8M

Ethiopia suffered a series of internet and social media blackouts over the month of June.

There was no official comment explaining the outages, which were imposed during nationwide exam period. While there was speculation that the restrictions were intended to prevent cheating, access remained blocked during weekend periods when there were no exams being held.

There were also restrictions later in the month which followed an attempted coup in the Amhara region, which lasted for over 100 hours.

Zimbabwe

  • Internet blackouts: 144 hours
  • Social media shutdowns: N/A
  • Total cost of shutdowns: $34.5M

The Zimbabwe government resorted to a week-long internet blackout as it tried to quell unrest over a 150% spike in fuel prices in January 2019. Mobile VPN downloads surged 250% in 2019 as a result.

Countries with Shutdown Costs Under $25M

Disputed presidential elections led to a week-long internet blackout in Mauritania in late June, which, along with other violations of press freedoms, was heavily criticized as contributing to “a climate of fear”.

Internet access was blocked in the Pakistan-controlled portion of Kashmir in September in response to protests over India’s controversial decision to strip autonomy from the parts of Kashmir under its jurisdiction.

While Egypt continued to aggressively censor opposition and news websites throughout 2019, the only dusruption that qualified as a shutdown was the
full block of Facebook Messenger
amid protests in September.

Kazakhstan blocked internet access on its national election day in May after several months of political discontent.

National elections in Bénin also prompted a full internet shutdown in April while citiziens cast their votes.

An internet blackout descended in Gabon for over a day in early January as security forces put down an attempted coup against President Ali Bongo by renegade soldiers.

Eritrea, the most censored country in the world in 2019, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists watchdog, strictly controls all internet access within its borders. Even this limited access was revoked in May in the lead up to its Independence Day to prevent potential protestors from organizing online.

Liberia implemented its first-ever social media shutdown in June as a “security measure” in response to a major planned protest.

Methodology

We reviewed every documented internet and social media shutdown globally in 2019. The shutdown criteria was based on the totality of the cut at the national or regional scale. For the purposes of this research, internet outages due to natural disasters or infrastructural failures were not included, nor were outage days prior to 2019 for ongoing incidents.

Shutdown nature, duration and severity was sourced primarily from Netblocks real-time graphic data and reports, 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.

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

Download the 2019 cost of internet shutdowns data sheet as a Google Sheet or as a PDF.


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Main image: People take part in a protest in Baghdad, Iraq, on 29 Oct 2019. Credit: Khalil Dawood/Xinhua/Alamy Live News.