Internet shutdowns are sweeping across the globe, leaving millions in the dark. But what is the human impact of having the internet ripped away? We asked hundreds of activists, students, journalists, farmers and entrepreneurs as part of the Advocacy Assembly Internet Shutdown Academy Mentored Training program about their experiences. They described the cascade of harms, as shutdowns shatter access to information, emergency services, and economic livelihoods.
"I lived like in the dark ages," recalls a lawyer and participant of the AA-ISA training program from Cameroon. For three long months, the government imposed a shutdown in the Anglophone regions of the country. The participant described how she was forced to travel to the next town just to check her email. Her legal aid clinic could no longer reach victims in need.
Her story is far from unique. As part of our call for applications for the Advocacy Assembly Internet Shutdown Academy Mentored Training program, we received over 1,060 applications from 135 countries to participate in a seven-week program that ran from September through November of 2023. The stories participants told us of their experiences with internet shutdowns illuminate the profound harms caused when governments press the kill switch on the internet- and demonstrate why there is a great need to build support for people around the world to better prepare for and fight back against shutdowns.
Many of the participants told us how shutdowns invade almost every facet of life - education, health, family, and work. A student from Tanzania described her anguish when universities abruptly shifted online during COVID-19. "The sudden disruption of internet services disrupted my ability to participate fully in online classes and complete assignments," she wrote. Her grades suffered. Her future hung in doubt. For this student’s mother, shutdowns cut off vital sources of income and employment. Her online store saw sales evaporate overnight, plunging the family into financial distress. Another participant, an agricultural entrepreneur from a rural part of Nigeria, described how he uses “the internet to advertise my farm produce.” When a shutdown occurred, he reported that “our sales dropped drastically.”
For activists on the frontlines of major elections or political crises, the blackout means losing contact right when events are unfolding rapidly. An election observer in Tanzania was unable to send reports of irregularities. A human rights defender told us that they were documenting human rights violations in the Oromia region of Ethiopia and that the many internet shutdowns “made it impossible for me and workmate to reach out to victims”. In Zimbabwe, a journalist told us that she had been covering political protests organized by the opposition which turned violent. She wrote, “The government shut the internet and no one would know what was happening around Zimbabwe… not knowing who died.” In India, a participant described how social media blocks to services like WhatsApp in Manipur fueled riots by letting disinformation run rampant.
"Fear and uncertainty loomed in the hearts of many because we didn't have accurate information or even access it timely," recalled one Ugandan participant. He noted that for seven days, he and 45 million Ugandans were plunged into isolation, cut off from loved ones and news.
Despite these stories of the suppressing and isolating effects of shutdowns, most participants were enthusiastic about their efforts to fight back and their desire to learn more and connect with other activists. A few participants described how they had learned how to use measurement tools like OONI to document internet shutdowns technically, and how that empowered them to use this evidence to hold governments accountable. One participant described a network of lawyers in Senegal who have been collaborating to understand the legal ramifications of shutdowns. Another participant wrote about the need to build networks of digital rights activists fighting shutdowns across national borders, saying, "I want my campaign to not only have an impact in my community by creating awareness and building resilience but also to learn from experiences and share best practices with colleagues from other countries." Another participant described how in her community in Nigeria, people “see internet disruptions as normal and something that is expected.” She wrote that she wanted to participate in the training “to show them that this is not normal and we have to hold both the government and their supporters accountable whenever there is an internet shutdown.”
Due to the overwhelming demand for the first AA-ISA Mentored Training Program, we have decided to run the program again from February through April 2024. The program will provide support and community guidance as you go through the ten Advocacy Assembly Internet Shutdown Academy courses, as well as opportunities to engage with mentors, experts, and funders. You will learn many skills relevant to internet shutdown advocacy from measuring internet shutdowns, developing an action plan for internet shutdowns, engaging with the private sector, documenting human rights violations during shutdowns, and using strategic litigation.
Experienced activists along with those new to internet freedom issues are encouraged to apply. Together, we can empower movements to #KeepItOn in the face of censorship and shutdowns.
Learn more about the program and apply to the Academy's next cohort by clicking on this link.