Internet Shutdowns and their Impact on Society

This blogpost explains the impact that internet shutdowns during exams have on societies in the Arab region. It is part of a SMEX campaign on the harms of this practice on the internet, economy and people’s lives. 

Since 2015, some Arab governments have been implementing internet shutdowns during exam periods in order to control information leaks and prevent cheating. When this happens, parts or the entirety of the internet either stop working or internet speeds are severely slowed down, a practice otherwise known as throttling. Despite lack of effectiveness, Algeria, Sudan, Jordan and Syria have carried on with this practice into 2021. In addition to causing grave economic losses, in the short- and long-term, shutdowns have a very profound impact on society.

Given the centrality of the internet in most aspects of modern society, the digital and the analog can no longer be separated from one another. This integration between the “physical” world and the online has led to the point where the loss of the internet, even if temporary, has massive consequences for individuals. Basic human rights such as freedom of expression and information are now closely tied to being connected. During the last few years, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, education and the right to work have also become increasingly dependent on internet connection. We now have to treat connectivity both as an enabler of rights and as a right in itself. 

In 2021, the impact of exams-related shutdowns has been significant. In Algeria, citizens and companies were unable to access the internet due to throttling and shutdowns during the four-day exam period. In addition, the government’s lack of accountability and responses to complaints gave an ulterior blow to public trust. In one testimony, Othman from Algeria described his day-to-day life under a shutdown: “It was not possible to send and receive emails and revise lessons on networking technologies on an online educational platform. I wasted the entire day.” In Sudan, the complete shutdowns lasted for four hours a day during the 11 day exam period: during these hours, citizens were completely unable to go online. 

Mohammad Abdallah, who founded an app that helps patients reach the nearest hospital, expressed his frustration to SMEX: “We receive most of our daily requests in the morning. When there is no internet, our only channel of communication is the telephone, which means that users will have to wait for long periods of time, not to mention that we lose about 20% of customers who want to order an ambulance or make a doctor’s appointment.” 

A web developer based in Iraq said that he was unable to do his work and a nurse in Algeria failed to complete courses on Zoom with a professor in her field: ‘’I lost all the possibilities to repeat the courses and I really needed them to complete my project for the end of the year that I’ve been working on for 4 months without forgetting the loss of money since I paid for the courses,’’ she said in a written testimonial submitted to SMEX.

An English-language teacher giving courses online, also from Algeria, described the loss of income as a result of these shutdowns: “I need the internet to do most of my job. Not having the internet for almost a week really affected my work. I get paid hourly so I didn’t get paid that week.’’ 

Similarly, in Syria, the internet was shut down for four and a half hours a day during three weeks. Millions of Syrians have been displaced by the ongoing conflict, and a stable internet connection is essential for them to communicate with loved ones. In Jordan, where interference was supposedly limited to messaging apps, many were unable to effectively communicate through online means during the exam period, in addition to reporting outages and throttling. 

According to one testimonial received from Jordan on Twitter: ‘’The internet gets often disrupted during high school exams, which has a negative impact. On many occasions my [phone] credit runs out and I resort to the internet to communicate with my family to help me during an emergency, however, Whatsapp audio and text messages only reach [receivers] three hours after [they are sent during shutdowns].”

The effect that shutdowns have on society are significant and diverse. In practical terms, people are deprived of many of their rights, such as the freedom of expression and information, right to education and the right to work. Public trust in the reliability of the internet is another victim: with an unreliable connection, the centrality of the internet is put in discussion. 

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SMEX

SMEX is a registered Lebanese NGO that works to advance self-regulating information societies in the Middle East and North Africa.