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268 million people had their internet shut off by government-imposed blackouts in 2020, up 49% from 2019

268 million people had their internet shut off by government-imposed blackouts in 2020, up 49% from 2019

A Kashmiri man and a child wearing masks walk past a parked armored police vehicle in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Monday, July 13, 2020. Authorities reimposed lockdown on Monday in parts of Indian-controlled Kashmir, including the region's main city, following surge in coronavirus cases. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)

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Government-imposed internet blackouts increased in length by 49% in 2020 compared to 2019, per research by digital security and rights nonprofit Top10VPN.

According to Top10VPN’s report, 93 major internet shutdowns took place in 21 countries around the world in 2020, including internet throttling — i.e. the only internet available was 2G — as well as social media shutdowns and full internet blackouts.

In total, 2020 saw 27,165 hours of internet shutdowns, up a dramatic 49% from 2019. Top10VPN estimated these blackouts affected 268 million people around the world, up 3% on the previous year.

One of the report’s authors told Business Insider the shutdowns had stopped people accessing healthcare information “and therefore may have contributed to the continued spread of the virus.”

Although the financial impact of internet shutdowns was only half what they cost the world economy in 2019, the human rights cost was significantly higher, the report said.

The report’s authors noted that longer shutdowns were concentrated in poorer countries, resulting in a lower global economic impact.

“While the overall impact on the global economy declined, authoritarian regimes showed little restraint in the face of a global pandemic and poorer countries were disproportionately affected,” they wrote.

India accounted for $2.8 billion of the total economic impact, with 75 internet shutdowns over the course of 2020 totalling roughly 8,900 hours — though Top10VPN noted the real figure was likely higher.

“The majority of these short blackouts were highly-targeted, affecting groups of villages or individual city districts and so were not included in this report, which focuses on larger region-wide shutdowns. The true economic cost is therefore likely to be even higher than the $2.8 billion we have calculated,” the report said.

“The prolonged shutdown in Kashmir was particularly damaging. It disrupted the distribution of medical services, negatively impacted students’ education and hurt local businesses,” Samuel Woodhams, one of the report’s authors told Business Insider.

India cut off internet access to the region of Kashmir on August 4, 2019 — one day before the country’s government revoked the region’s autonomous status. This blackout was partially lifted in March 2020, but internet speeds remained throttled.

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Woodhams added that in the context of the pandemic, internet shutdowns represent an even more troubling violation of human rights than usual. “During the pandemic, internet shutdowns have stifled citizens’ ability to access vital health information and therefore may have contributed to the continued spread of the virus,” he said.

Myanmar restricted internet access for a similar length of time to India, and in June reports emerged from the country that some citizens had not even heard of the coronavirus pandemic due to lack of access to the internet.

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