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Measuring the Internet 17 February 2021

Internet Shutdowns: How to Undermine Trust in the Network of Networks

Akriti Bopanna
By Akriti BopannaFormer Global Policy and Advocacy Manager

The Indian government’s recent Internet shutdown during farmer protests impacted over 50 million residents. It is a stark warning of the danger of tampering with the foundations that make the Internet work for everyone.

Internet shutdowns are a dangerous tactic increasingly used by the state to quell situations of unrest. In this instance, it occurred during protests in the capital, Delhi, where farmers are asking for a repeal of three state-proposed farm laws. But while the initial Internet shutdown was targeted in Delhi and lasted around 29 hours, it soon extended to districts in the neighboring state of Haryana from 26 January to 1 February to “prevent disturbance to peace and public order”.

The consequence of shutting down parts of the Internet to prevent citizen access is profound: it undermines the global Internet infrastructure, which is based on collaboration and trust, and has severe individual and economic consequences that can extend far beyond a nation’s borders.

The Internet is an incredibly successful and powerful tool, a fact that has become all too clear during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a key technology for supporting education, economic activity, and even access to healthcare for those under stay-at-home orders. But the Internet does not owe its success to any one technology, but rather to the way it operates and evolves – what we call the Internet Way of Networking. This is how independent networks connect to one another to form the global Internet, and it is the key to its success. But, as all local networks are a part of the overall network, when one network is under threat, so too are the opportunities it offers and so too is the global Internet.

Internet shutdowns are an example of how government actions can harm the Internet Way of Networking. Governments have a duty to protect the Internet and its users from policies and decisions that could break its underlying foundations – the five pillars of the Internet Way of Networking. This is why the Internet Society created the Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit (IIAT), which helps policymakers assess the potential implications of proposed law, policy, or technology on the fundamental properties at the Internet’s core. See how they work together in this infographic.

If regulators in India had conducted such an assessment prior to implementing a shutdown, they would have found that this measure harms three of the five critical pillars of the Internet’s foundation: an open and accessible architecture, its distributed and decentralized nature, and its general purpose.

The Internet is built upon an open and accessible architecture that provides global connectivity. When the Internet is shut down, there is no connectivity within the region/country (the goal of the shutdown) and also between the country and the rest of the world. Thus, shutting down networks not only shuts down the world to Indians, it also shuts down India to the rest of world. This reduces accessibility and the confidence in the availability of the Internet infrastructure not only for individuals, but also for businesses, impacting the investment and general economic climate in the country.

Furthermore, the ability to shut down the Internet demonstrates a centralized management of the relevant operators in the country, which runs counter to the Internet’s distributed and decentralized nature. This undermines critical functions in the Internet, such as the routing of traffic for other networks, within and outside the country. The result is a less resilient network, as a shutdown compromises the ability of network operators to respond to changing local conditions, such as the surge in traffic seen during the current pandemic.

But the impact may be even more profound given that modern web services are modular, with different backend components spread across different networks, which are important for the user’s experience and safety. For instance, a web shop might rely on a login-service offered by a third party, such as Google sign in. The same web shop may also rely on an external database for inventory maintenance, and another for customer relations. Finally, what would a web shop be without a payment service? If any of those backend services are located in a network that is affected by a shutdown, then the web shop becomes dysfunctional or unreliable, placing the business at risk.

The Internet’s success has relied on its open nature, because this inclusivity has meant that anyone could contribute to its evolution with virtually infinite potential for innovation. The ability to allocate and make use of technical resources across different networks, as described above, is just one example of the Internet’s incredible features. But this relies on trust.

When an Internet shutdown happens, the trust factor between networks starts to erode – and the consequences can be devastating. It makes little sense to allocate technical resources inside, or in proximity to, networks that are subject to arbitrary outages, as currently the case in India. As a consequence, other networks in the global Internet’s “network of networks” will avoid routes that are subject to arbitrary shutdowns because they cannot be trusted to consistently deliver content or data packets.

Finally, the Internet is a general-purpose network because there is no defined limit to the applications its infrastructure can support. Obviously this is of no value when it is shut down, as no applications and services are available, including but not limited to the ones that led to the shutdown. The shutdown in Delhi on 26 January impacted over 50 million residents, some of whom found it difficult to even make voice calls. This is because Reliance Jio, the most popular telecom provider in the city, is fully IP-based. To shut down the Internet is to pull the plug, not only on dissenting voices, but on businesses, governmental services, educational institutions, innovation, and society as a whole.

Governments should be harnessing the potential of the Internet as an open and collaborative resource to improve the well-being of citizens, especially in an emerging economy like India. With a large part of its population still unconnected, the nation has yet to actualize the full potential of the Internet infrastructure as a force for good. But this is only possible by moving forward in a way that supports the Internet Way of Networking.

Internet shutdowns are a disproportionate measure with far-reaching impacts that are counter-productive to India’s development in the digital realm. As India proceeds with its Digital India initiative and formulates policies for the country, it is critical to do so in a way that promotes the health of the Internet’s foundation to create digital stability.

Keep track of Internet shutdowns and disruptions happening in India and around the world on the Internet Society’s Measurement Internet Measurments platform.

Image by Omar Flores via Unsplash

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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