It was the night of 27 January 2011, in Cairo, Egypt and the country was in the throes of a revolution. The Arab Spring was in full swing, and the Egyptian government did something a state had never before done, setting a dangerous precedent, the effect of which can still be seen nearly a decade later. They cut off Internet access to the entire country, including SMS messaging and mobile data, in a bid to halt communication between protestors.
This — the severing of more than 20 million people’s connection to the internet- was nothing short of historical. While countries such as China and Iran have notoriously placed limitations on internet usage, particularly during periods of unrest, this was the first time that all online communication had been halted: with 88% of all Egyptian internet access being successfully shut down. In fact, the only comparable action at that point was that of a state recognised as a rogue state by the US Department of Defence: North Korea, which has never allowed its citizens access to the internet. Jim Cowie, the chief technology officer of Renesys, remarked:
“With the scope of their shutdown and the size of their online population, it is an unprecedented event”
Leslie Harris, President of the Centre for Democracy and Technology weighed in, calling the internet shutdown “inconsistent with all international human rights norms.” Indeed, in the summer of 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council released a non-binding resolution condemning intentional disruption of internet access by governments as a violation of their human rights, citing freedom of speech in particular, and stating that “the same rights people have offline must also be protected online. ”
This drove home to political commentators and tech experts alike exactly how much power the Internet had, and the lengths to which oppressive institutions would go to limit that power. While the blackout was lifted after just five days -during which the Egyptian economy lost at least 90 million dollars- those five days were sufficient to prove the extent to which the Internet could be used a force for change, as a way for activists to mobilise and organise- and equally, as a force of repression. They successfully introduced an entirely new facet to global geopolitics.
“The legacy of the Egyptian Internet blackout was that it ushered in the modern era of government-directed suppression of Internet communication.”
As Doug Madory states above, this set a dangerous precedent. As the Arab Spring protests spread, the trend of government-directed Internet blackouts continued in Syria, Libya, and Bahrain. In fact, according to the Washington Post, 22 African countries have recorded Internet shutdowns in the last five years, from Ethiopia to Uganda to Zimbabwe. Reporters Without Borders state that internet cuts or restrictions on access to online social networks are now “widely used in Africa as censorship tools to gag dissent and prevent coverage of unrest.”
And now -in June 2019- it is happening again, directly south of Egypt: in Sudan. On June 10, the authorities shut down nearly all internet access in a bid to stem the protests that have been rocking the country for almost six months, triggered by rising costs of living, and cumulating in a fight for democracy and freedom.
Netblocks, a nonprofit organisation monitoring internet censorship, announced that Sudan now faces a “near-total restriction” on internet access in the country. A spokesperson for the military council confirmed on Al-Jazeera that the military had, in fact, ordered the shutdown.
Before the current shutdowns, Sudan’s government had blocked access to social media platforms — including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp — intermittently between December 2018 and April 2019. The key difference is that before, they were restricted to social media platforms -and occasionally news outlets- this blackout affects the entire Internet. Restrictions now are, according to Netblocks, more severe than those implemented during the rule of ousted president Omar al-Bashir.
This internet shutdown seems to be having the desired effect: the Sudanese Professionals Association have said that “the internet blackout is a means of isolating the country and burying the truth”, and indeed, information such as death tolls are proving increasingly harder to verify. According to the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors, at least 108 people have been killed and more than 500 wounded since Monday, while a health ministry official has been quoted as saying the death toll stood at only 61. The Internet blackout has made it nearly impossible for observers or news outlets to report the true number.
Whatever the death toll truly is, it is already too high.
Almost a decade on from the Egyptian revolution which saw an ‘official’ toll of 846 deaths, the current Sudanese government seems to have learnt nothing from its northern neighbour. If this continues, more innocent protestors will die at the hands of the military that is supposed to protect them, and we, in Western nations, will have been bystanders to this heinous crime. So you, reading this: take full advantage of your Internet access. Email your MP. Sign a petition. Use Twitter to find and attend a protest. Even turn your profile picture blue. Whatever you do, do something, because your brothers and sisters in Sudan do not have that privilege.