The internet can be switched off at the touch of a button. Didn’t you know? While in Europe the idea of the internet simply being switched off might sound crazy, in other countries it’s an ordinary political practice. So far this year, the internet has been switched off in India a whole 54 times. Egypt, Iraq, Bangladesh and Cameroon have also been subject to internet shutdowns.
According to a UNESCO report released last week on Freedom of Expression and Media Development (original in German, for an English summary, click here), over the past two years, governments have increasingly put blocks on the internet: 2017 has so far seen a registered 61 internet shutdowns – 43 more than in 2015.
So what’s the reason?
The main reasons for a digital blackout are usually as part of a government’s attempt to stop the spread of inflammatory messages and videos, to quell protest and to put a gag on any negative voices in the press.
Digital blackouts are made possible by local internet service providers who follow government orders in order not to lose their valuable state licences. In many places the internet is delivered by only a handful of different providers, making it an instrument of power that is incredibly easy to manipulate.
But there are also other reasons for a lack of internet access. Not every region of the world is connected to the World Wide Web (yet) and things like natural disasters and wars can cause existing communication infrastructure to collapse.
And the consequences of that can be fatal: the internet allows us to transfer crucial information, carry out transactions and maintain contact with people who are on the other side of the world. In crisis situations it can also be a life-saver, for gaining real-time information about the situation in a certain critical area, for example, directing aid to the correct places and coordinating humanitarian measures.
Peer-to Peer: Messages From Smartphone to Smartphone
The Syrian software engineer Abdul Rahman AlAshraf has developed a solution – FreeCom – which can spring into action when the internet connection is shut down, interrupted or just non-existent.
The idea is very simple: FreeCom’s technology turns every smartphone into a transmitter that sends data from one smartphone to the next, until the information arrives at the intended recipient.
The transfer can be made using every possible technology that the device allows, whether it’s light signals or low-frequency sound waves. This chain reaction from device to device produces an emergency network that functions completely without the internet. The connection’s not highspeed, but it’s safe and encrypted.
Abdul Rahman AlAshraf has already won the European Youth Award in 2016 for his FreeCom idea. The young Syrian is currently working on developing the prototype, and first tests have already shown that the technology even works on older models of mobile phone. In his ideal world, technologies like FreeCom would come pre-installed in new smartphones. For that reason he wants his technology to be free and available as open source software.
Putting a Stop to the Shutdowns
While FreeCom makes it difficult for governments to prevent all kinds of digital communication, before there can be change on a political level, there is still more to be done.
The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution in 2016 declaring access to the internet to be a human right, because shutdowns contradict humans’ right to freedom of expression. But resolutions made by the United Nations are only binding after they have made their way into a country’s lawbook.
And certain countries still haven’t brought in the legislation that would put a stop to the shutdowns. But 71 countries have at least signed the resolution and here’s hoping the rest follow suit…