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    Are Governments Getting Trigger-Happy with the Internet Kill Switch?

    Written by

    Meghan Neal

    contributing editor

    Photo of Sudan President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir via Wikimedia

    This afternoon, three Internet monitoring companies confirmed reports that Sudan abruptly cut itself off from the World Wide Web. According to Renesys, the first to confirm the news, internet traffic in the republic dropped to zero around 1 PM this afternoon. 

    Two more firms, BGPMon and Akamai also confirmed the outage.

    Chances are, the Sudanese government is behind the blackout. Sudan's online disappearing act came after three days of protests that started over rising fuel prices intensified and morphed into a call to oust President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, reported Al Arabiya today. Six people were killed in the demonstrations, which were organized with the help of social media, and today police started using tear gas on the crowd.

    And according to Renesys, the nature of the outage implies that it was at the state's behest. Four ISPs were cut off at the same time, which isn't likely to happen due to just a technical glitch. "It's either a government-directed thing or some very catastrophic technological failure that just happens to coincide with violent riots happening in the city," Renesys senior analyst Doug Madory told the Associated Press. If the government did decide to switch off the Internet, it would be the biggest state-mandated blackout since Egypt in 2011.

    Increasingly, authoritarian regimes facing public dissent are turning to the draconian measure as if it's as simple as changing the TV channel when you don't like what's playing. Is this how it's going to be now? First try to break up the crowd, then break out the tear gas, then shut the Internet off?

    Controlling access to the web—either with a full-on blackout, partial outages, or slowing down connection speeds to a crawl—gained momentum as a tool to quash dissent during the Arab spring. Governments used censorship to stop demonstrators from being able to organize through social media, and prevent damning videos and photos from getting out to the rest of the world.

    Before that, the approach had only been used a few times: In 2004 by the Maldivian president, 2005 in Nepal, Burma in 2007, and 2009 in Iran. But the Arab spring demonstrations—famous for social media and technology's role in helping them organize and spread—really solidified the Internet's role as a weapon in conflict—on both sides. During the unprecedented total blackout in Egypt in 2011, the entire country went dark for two days. The governments of Syria, Libya, and again, Sudan, also flipped the kill switch—Syria just last year.

    It's an unsettling trend. And the thing is, censorship isn't even very effective. It can just add fuel to the fire, making people even more angry at the government and inciting chaos. It's also terrible for the economy. And netizens will always find ways to circumvent censorship, like turning to Tor, smuggling in phones and modems, or using satellite communications. 

    To that end, some governments have opted instead to fight back on the web, instead of against it. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has tried that tack, hacking rebel communications and using tracking tools to spot brewing protests. The Sudanese regime also tried that approach back in 2011, even declaring a "cyber-jihad" against dissident protesters. 

    It makes you wonder if pulling the proverbial plug on the Internet isn't more of a power play to show off your guns than a strategic method of suppressing social unrest.