Last February, a few days before the presidential election in Togo, around 30 human rights and press freedom organizations sent a letter to the incumbent president calling upon him to maintain the stability and openness of Internet. The letter encouraged the government to “undertake the necessary measures to ensure that the Internet service providers and relevant actors ensure an open, accessible, and secure Internet throughout Togo during this electioneering period.” Indeed, there were growing concerns that the authorities could have blocked web traffic through an “Internet shutdown”. This 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.” Togo already experienced something like this in 2017 amid a wave of protest against authorities; the government is now facing a trial for shutting down Internet on that occasion. Luckily, this time, as the preliminary election report by the ECOWAS election observation mission suggests, there were no cases of Internet blocking during last February’s presidential election. Nevertheless, the letter sent to the president is emblematic insofar as it clearly depicts a worrisome trend taking place around the world: government Internet shutdowns. Given the paramount importance of cyberspace to our societies, the practice of blocking or slowing down access to the net constitutes, for the United Nations Human Rights Council, a violation of the fundamental human rights law. Despite this condemnation took a form of a non-binding resolution, it shall set the agenda for more relevant initiatives at UN level.
This practice, also known as “internet kill switch”, has become more and more common all around the world since 2011. According to the latest report published by KeepItOn there has been an increase in the number of countries using this practice (25 in 2018 and 33 in 2019) and it also signals a trend toward sustained and prolonged shutdowns. It would be common sense to think that authoritarian countries, which usually curb media and freedom of expression, would be at the forefront in Internet kill switch practices. However, as the report highlights, more than half of the shutdowns in 2019 occurred in India, which is the largest democracy in the world. It should be mentioned that these shutdowns are not always nationwide but refer to specific regions or localities such as Jammu or Kashmir. The country with the most nationwide shutdowns is Algeria, with 6 cases in 2019. Authoritarian regimes also implement practices other than Internet kill switch, and they often take the form of censorship policies implemented through legal or informational measures. For example, as reported by Freedom House, there are 12 countries around the world that resort to criminal charges to control online speech during electoral periods. Another 24 countries use informational measures like content manipulation in the form of propagandistic news, outright fake news or the hijacking of real social media accounts.
A question naturally arises: how it is possible for a government to shut down the Internet? In fact, there is no such a thing as a turn-off button. Indeed, purposely shutting down the connection in a specific location or at the national level is a practice that requires some level of government control over the infrastructure comprising Internet, which – by definition – is a network of networks. In order to block the flows of data it is necessary to interrupt the process by which data are transmitted between hosts (i.e. computers). This is permitted by a protocol called Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) that has four levels of transmission: application, transport, Internet, and network interface. A government that wants to block or slow down access to the net has to intervene at application and network interface levels. At the application level the government has to control (directly or indirectly) the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), through which it can change the configuration of Internet traffic for their users. The government in some cases may also decide to interrupt the work of the local internet exchange points (IXPs) located on its national territory. The IXPs are physical infrastructures that facilitate the exchange of data between ISPs (inside and outside a country). Cutting off Internet cables is another option, certainly with higher costs, and it won’t affect connections via satellite (even if the latter counts for less than 1% of overall data traffic). Moreover, a government must also control two elements located in the network interface level. The first one relates to the Domain Name System (DNS) that translates IP addresses into readable texts (such as ispionline.it). In this case a government may remove access to its country code DNS (for example websites ending with .it for Italy); however, other DNSs will be still working. Last but not least, interrupting data flows at the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), which is the routing protocol – an essential part to connect ISPs, also those that are not part of the same network. In other words, shutting down Internet is not easy but possible. While there are ongoing debates about to what extent a country can be really isolated from the net, for sure it is possible to cut out some part of Internet. Everything depends on the presence of, and on the control that a government has over, Internet infrastructures.
Therefore, beyond figures about Internet shutdowns, what should be monitored closely is the ongoing trend among public authorities to gaining control over Internet infrastructures. There are some countries, such as Russia, that are reformulating their cyber governance policies to gain the ability to detach their portion of the net from the rest of the Internet. Although this is often justified in terms of a cybersecurity countermeasure in case of massive cyber-attacks, it can have another use – a political one. The latter must be considered for what it is both at the normative and ethical levels. An issue that should be addressed with urgency by the international community to set clear codes of conduct, for example in case of elections, or even binding resolutions. We are speaking about a fundamental human right, after all.
 See the report here.