The session “Down for Nothing? Shutdowns during Exams in the Middle East and North Africa” was held as part of Bread&Net 2022 in Beirut between 15 to 17 November.
This talk’s panelists were Khattab Hamad, digital rights activist, and researcher; Raya Sharbain, Education and Communities Coordinator at The Tor Project, formerly Program Coordinator at Jordan Open Source Association (JOSA); Sarah Cupler, law and technology researcher; and Kassem Mnejja, MENA campaigner with Access Now. The speakers discussed internet disruptions and shutdowns during exams over the past few years in the MENA region. The culprits of this draconian measure include Sudan, Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria, each using different tactics to disrupt the internet during exams.
Kassem Mnejja discussed how Access Now had built a coalition of 200 civil society actors from 105 countries to put an end to shutting down the internet. Coalition members use different approaches to achieve this, from grassroots advocacy and legal intervention to grant-making and public and private advocacy with governments and stakeholders.
“In 2021, authorities deliberately shut down the internet at least 182 times across 34 countries; this is an increase from 2020,” Mnejja said. “In the MENA region, internet shutdown has been the go-to practice for many governments to silence dissent,” he added.
Speaking about shutdowns in Jordan, Raya Sharbain gave the following input: “The government shuts down the internet in a non-noticeable way. You can’t feel it, and you may think it’s from the internet provider, not anything else.” She added that they used shutdowns in Jordan during political unrest and any event that might create instability for the government or the Royal family.
One of the first reports JOSA published with the Open Observatory of Network Interference detailed internet throttling during political protests in 2018 and 2019. It was interesting that the findings highlighted how internet disruptions first took place on Facebook’s Live streaming service: “We knew that there was throttling when everything on Facebook was working fine, but live streaming was not, and then we realized that there were protests in the streets at that time; it was proof of internet throttling and the use of deep inspection in Jordan,” Raya said.
Raya also mentioned how Clubhouse became popular in Jordan, adding, “After the government noticed the massive usage of this app and the space it provides for free speech, they started throttling it.”
“Everything appears to be working normally, except for live streaming, so you think it’s an internet issue,” added Sharbain. She also mentioned that when users tried to solve this by using an open-source VPN, those were blocked too.
Kassem directed a question to Khattab, asking him about internet shutdowns and how the government weaponized this practice during exams in Sudan.
“Internet shutdowns were implemented in 2010 during the national elections when they blocked Youtube after videos of fraud during elections were leaked,” Khattab explained.
“In 2013, they shut down the internet during a protest where more than 100 people were killed in one week. In December 2018, they shut down the internet until April 2019 during the Sudanese revolution. When the internet was restored, they blocked social media websites, including WhatsApp and Telegram, for 37 days,” Khattab added.
Khattab also explained how the government shut down the internet during the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). “They shut it at different times without any justification; the only reason they have is National security.”
Sarah Cupler then provided an overview of the internet shutdown in some countries based on her research with SMEX.
“In Algeria, they use full-time throttling and shutdowns for four days with no warning to residents, and in Syria, they did so for four hours and a half daily. In Iraq, they shut down the internet for four hours a day for ten days in the Kurdistan region,” Cupler explained. “This only happens if you have strong control over the internet, and these countries have this strong control,” adding that these countries also shut down the internet during exam times to control protests.
Governments’ flawed logic behind shutdowns
Kassem Mnejja asked the speakers about different arguments governments present to defend shutting down the internet and whether this action effectively fulfills their alleged purposes.
Regarding Sudan, Khattab said that national security is the primary justification the Sudanese government offers. It claims this measure protects society from foreign interference. The government also relies on cybercrime and telecommunication laws to control the internet without mentioning any specific laws pertaining directly to internet shutdowns.
Sarah Cupler mentioned that the justification in Syria and Algeria often relies on claims that 50% of students cheat during exams when they can access the internet. They decided to shut down the internet because other measures weren’t enough.
Algeria invested in surveillance cameras, metal detectors, and jamming technology around schools, in addition to implementing strong laws against cheating, yet they claim this is not enough. In 2021, 77 students were charged with publishing topics and answers online for the Bachelor’s exams.
Syria also announced investing in encrypting exams and using surveillance cameras, arguing that they must prevent leaks. Continuing to shut down the internet is contradictory since the Ministry of Education had promised to end cheating by collaborating with the Telecommunications Minister to end the practice. Also, the Algerian president had denounced the use of exam shutdowns while the practice continues to this day.
About Jordan, Raya explained: “The justification for shutting down the internet depends on the case; for exams, it’s preventing cheating. But in different cases where there were protests in Amman, the local media denied any shutdowns or throttling of the internet. The Jordanian government uses technology to control and suppress people, not improve education.”
Regarding the societal and economic impacts of internet shutdowns, Sarah Cupler explained: “If we looked at the educational sector, we’d find that this is an impediment for students to take their classes and submit their assignments, contact classmates and teachers; We witnessed how Iraqi students failed their medical exams because of internet connection issues.”
“It doesn’t only affect the education sector but anyone with online work, so whatever form internet disruptions take, whether it’s throttling or jamming or localized disconnection, it will harm economic development as well as the trust and the integrity in the internet,” Cupler said.
Fighting internet shutdowns
Khattab discussed shutdowns beyond exams season: “During the October 2021 shutdown, after COP26, some lawyers and the Consumer Protection Association raised a lawsuit against internet shutdowns. After 20 days, the judge ruled to restore the internet service to everyone. Still, the authorities refused to do so, and after repeated attempts, the government arrested the CEO of the ISPs and then shut down the internet before restoring it.”
Although civil society is working hard to fight shutdowns, Khattab added that this practice has become normalized in Sudan.
“We were trying to during the last shutdown to highlight how it’s affecting vaccination centers during Covid-19,” Raya added about Jordan. “While the government was encouraging people to take their vaccines and register online, the vacation centers were down due to internet shutdowns.”
“We should advocate against internet shutdowns to convince the government that is a ridiculous decision, but it doesn’t always work,” Raya said. “It is advisable to utilize circumvention tools while promoting awareness about their use. Additionally, ensuring access to the internet through various devices is crucial so that individuals can have a reliable connection regardless of any government restrictions. This approach is the optimal solution in our situation.”