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.
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.
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.