The Internet Blackout Tracker (IBT): Who is Disconnected?

August 4th, 2016, it was the night before a scheduled protest in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and I was warned by neighbours to stay in-doors due to potential violence. The following morning, I noticed that my WhatsApp and overall Internet connection was down. I later learned that up to 100 people were killed during the protest (Human Rights Watch 2019). There was no local coverage and international coverage had limited information. While in the country it was difficult to critically examine what was going on but I could feel the impact of the Internet Blackout coupled with increased violence towards citizens, and surveillance.

Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration over what they say is unfair distribution of wealth in the country at Meskel Square in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, August 6, 2016. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri - RTSLDSE
Protesters demand for the equal protections of Oromo people in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Reuters, 2016).

Which led me to investigate further and ask a number of question: was this happening anywhere else? Is there any way to intervene? How do Internet Blackouts impact their livelihood?  Why did the government choose to order an Internet Blackout(s) as opposed to other forms censorship (filtering and blocking content) like China or Russia?  

I learned, Ethiopia was not the only country to experience an Internet Blackout and in 2018 there were about 196 shutdowns in 25 countries and this number continues to rise in 2019 (Access Now 2019). This year we have seen Internet Blackouts in Sudan, Venezuela, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Hong Kong and Myanmar to name a few (Access Now 2019). I visualize these instances as a way for the government to place a blanket over the country or targeted region to protect their actions from the gaze of the world. In moments of a shutdown, we should be concerned about the human rights abuses that may take place. Especially, in cases where the Internet is only shutdown in targeted areas such as Cameroon and India.

Protestors hold laptops and signs that read 100 DAYS NO INTERNET
Journalists demand the restoration of the Internet in Kashmir, India (Reuters, 2019)

Advocacy groups such as Access Now, NetBlocks, Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and Freedom House have stressed this issue over the past few years. Even with an expanding community of advocacy groups and scholars working on this issue, understanding the phenomenon is not easy. The information on Internet Blackouts are often separated across multiple platforms or are mentioned briefly in a news report of an upcoming election or protest. Additionally, raw data that is gathered on Internet Blackouts are not always presented in an accessible fashion for the general public.

While at the Lewis and Ruth Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship, I am developing an Internet Blackout Tracker (IBT) that is accessible to support impacted communities, educate interested global citizens and also useful for academics and NGO’s. The purpose of the project is to present a user-friendly interactive map of Internet Blackouts around the world. Subscribers will receive up-to date alerts of Internet Blackout occurrences and they can also access country profiles by clicking on the area of interest. The country profiles will include the length, span/impact and number of Internet Blackouts experienced in the selected country or region. The purpose of the country profiles is to assist in understanding this larger phenomenon but also to not generalize the impact. My proposed IBT will draw from the Internet Shutdown Tracker created by the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) in India (SFLC 2018). However, instead of focusing on a single country, my proposed interface will map out the world and include different dimensions such as the history of civil conflict and the level of freedom of expression.

With the support of the Sherman Centre, I continue to develop ideas, troubleshoot and gain additional support to execute this project. Attending the workshop series organized by the Data Analysis Support Hub (DASH) on R-programming language and sessions on GIS software have been helpful even for individuals at the introductory level like myself.

In the future, I hope to integrate a self-reporting component for those experiencing an Internet Blackout. This would add an additional dimension by including the narratives of those who’ve experienced an Internet Blackout. Self-reporting systems have successfully been used by Access Now, OONI and SFLC. Engaging in digital scholarship has allowed me to consider the importance of advocacy in my work. Constructing a visual and interactive tool allows the researcher and the researched to meet in a collaborative space.

Protestor holds sign that reads
Citizens protest in Zimbabwe following an Internet Blackout (Reuters, 2019)

Hundreds, thousands and sometimes millions of people are silenced as a result of an Internet Blackout and I hope that the IBT will become a tool used by advocacy groups, an introduction for the general public and a supporting mechanism for victims. Since many governments do not publicly acknowledge the use of Internet Blackouts the IBT can become one way to support victim group’s claims when making political demands. Developing an accessible visualization is vital to increase public awareness and hopefully to assist in halting the usage of Internet Blackouts.

I look forward to sharing my progress on this project and the Internet Blackout Tracker with the community!

Articles Referenced

Access Now. 2019. “#KeepItOn.” Access Now (blog). 2019.

Human Rights Watch. 2019. “Ethiopian Protests.” Human Rights Watch. 2019.

SFLC. 2018. “Internet Shutdowns in India.” Internet Shutdowns. 2018.

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