Censoring peaceful protesters isn’t the only reason governments have deliberately shut down the Internet in 2022, but researchers say it is the primary objective and is costing the most to the global economy.
According to a report from Top10VPN, the cost of government-ordered Internet shutdowns in 2022 has cost the global economy more than $10 billion. That figure nearly doubles 2021 costs, and it’s only halfway through the year.
At a cost of $8.77 billion, the biggest drain on the global economy is Russia. That country’s ongoing social media blackouts began shortly after the Ukraine invasion and are designed to limit peaceful protest and press freedoms by preventing access to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
So far this year, Top10VPN has tracked government shutdowns in 16 countries, measuring costs per day of shutdowns specifically preventing protests that range from hundreds of thousands in Pakistan to hundreds of millions in Russia.
Other reasons for government Internet shutdowns include efforts in Sudan, Syria, and Algeria to prevent students from cheating on academic exams. Those non-conflict-based shutdowns aren’t any cheaper, sometimes costing more than $6 million daily to the global economy.
If Top10VPN’s 2022 tracking is as incomplete as previous years, it’s likely that there are even more overlooked costs to the global economy from Internet shutdowns than they’re reporting.
The Top10VPN report focused on major Internet shutdowns, disregarding additional economic and human rights costs of smaller outages. In 2021, their annual report documented only 50 Internet shutdowns—much fewer than what was recorded by the international digital human rights nonprofit Access Now, at 182 shutdowns during the same timeframe. Between 2016 and 2021, Access Now recorded 931.
The pattern emerging from the VPN researchers’ early 2022 data agrees with experts who predict that costs will continue spiraling as Internet shutdowns become more widely used by governments hoping to restrict online activity during conflicts.
“Since we began tracking government-initiated Internet shutdowns, their use has proliferated at a truly alarming pace,” Access Now campaigner Felicia Anthonio told The Verge last year.
Getting around Internet shutdowns
More than 370 million Internet users have been affected by major government-induced Internet outages in 2022.
When governments shut down the Internet, most commonly it’s by coordinating with companies to cause complete Internet blackouts, targeted social media shutdowns, or Internet throttling that slows down the Internet speed so that users can only send text messages.
In 2022, governments in 12 out of 16 countries tracked by Top10VPN used these methods specifically to prevent videos shared from peaceful protests. A five-day Internet blackout in Kazakhstan censored citizens from protesting fuel shortages, with blackout periods during that timeframe sometimes restricting access for the full 24 hours. Other shutdowns have stretched on even longer, with government-induced Internet outages in Myanmar and Ethiopia functioning to censor anti-war speech for the past two years.
While Top10VPN says “it’s not possible to bypass a full Internet blackout and actually get online in any normal way,” people in countries experiencing social media shutdowns can use tools to access banned apps or websites. Most commonly, people use roaming SIM cards or VPN or Tor systems to circumvent location-based blocks on Internet content.
In Russia, where government Internet shutdowns come with the greatest cost, demand for VPN has “skyrocketed” since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, according to Top10VPN.
There’s little evidence that these outages will stop any time soon. Last month, the United Nations suggested it was up to companies to stop cooperating with governments using Internet shutdowns to limit human rights. In May, the UN recommended that “companies should explore all lawful measures to challenge the implementation of disruptions.”