Despite criticism from free expression and digital rights groups, such as IFEX and AccessNow, the Iraqi government appears increasingly reliant on blocking access to the internet as a tactic to deal with social, political, and security concerns. There have been 25 shutdowns since the beginning of 2017, including 15 in the first half of the year to prevent cheating on exams. The continuation of this practice is disturbing, especially because the government has started to shut down the internet without warning and without reducing the length of its shutdowns. The Iraqi government’s repeated adoption of this tactic demonstrates that its attitude towards internet freedoms is moving in the wrong direction.
The Iraqi government has usually provided a warning before shutting down the internet, but on July 15, 2016, during protests in Baghdad, the government shut down the internet for three and a half hours with no announcement. Then, on July 20th of this year, the Ministry of Communications shut down the internet in the middle of the night without any notification. Though the government gave no reason, this shutdown occurred as the remaining ISIS militants in Mosul intensified suicide attacks.
Even when the Iraqi government shut down internet service for the first time in 2014—in response to “the exceptional security situation Iraq is having,” a reference to ISIS’ capture of Samarra, Mosul, and part of Kirkuk in June of that year—it issued a notice about the shutdown. Though that blockage was limited to five provinces, it was more comprehensive in scale than subsequent shutdowns as the government ordered the total shutdown of the internet and partial blockage of Virtual Private Networks (VPN), and restricted access to various social media sites. While an equally comprehensive warning was issued then, the Iraqi government’s more recent shutdowns are occurring without warning and for relatively benign reasons, marking a troubling regression of digital rights in Iraq.
Moreover, the government reversed course on shortening the length of internet shutdowns. The most recent instance of an internet shutdown occurred during an examination period at the end of August 2017, at the request of the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Communications stated that “an outage of internet services will occur during the period of the 26th of August until the 10th of September 2017 starting from 6:30 AM-9:30 AM.” The Ministry stressed that for nine days in this window “total service blackout will occur.”
Starting in July 2015, the Iraqi Ministry of Telecommunications shut down the internet during the high school bachelor exams in order to prevent cheating, ordering all service providers, including mobile 3G providers, to shut down their services for three hours every day for the duration of the three-week exams. In May 2016, service shutdown was expanded to include high school and secondary schools’ final examination periods. The government recognized the negative impact of these three-hour shutdowns and, earlier in 2017, decreased the period to one hour. Yet, in August, it elected to return to three-hour shutdown periods, proving that the government is choosing to overlook the cost of periodic shutdowns of the internet.
“Partial or complete shutdowns of the internet have taken place in 51 countries in just the first 10 months of 2016,” SMEX reported last year, warning that “in times of political unrest, an internet shutdown could lead to an increase in violence and acts of repression while making it nearly impossible to reach essential services and connect with loved ones.” The internet ecosystem also has a transformational impact on both developed and developing economies, lowering the barriers for business activity, facilitating access to new markets, and helping businesses drive efficiency.
Restricting connectivity has the potential to reverse the positive impact that the internet has on the wider economy. Even partial disruptions can have material economic effects. For example, it can weaken email services, prevent access to dynamic information on weather conditions, and hinder retailers and other businesses from reaching customers in other parts of the country and across borders. It is clear that the Iraqi government’s decision to shut down the internet, even for three-hour periods, negatively impacts Iraqi citizens.
The economic losses due to the 22 shutdowns that occurred between July 2015 and June 2016 are estimated at over $209 million. But beyond the economy, Iraq’s reliance on internet shutdowns is a threat to social and political institutions within the country. The government has created an environment where it is acceptable to block the internet and continued use of this tactic could have drastic effects if the government elects to employ it habitually to face new social and political challenges.
Restricting access to the internet – even for a short period of time – endangers lives, separates people from each other, undermines economic growth, and erodes confidence in a government that takes such drastic and ill-advised steps. The Iraqi government should recognize the widespread consequences of this decision and opt to manage its political and security challenges without threatening the digital rights of its citizens and without disrupting their lives.