Senior Lecturer in Computing & Communications Engineering Dr Mahdi Aiash describes what Internet shutdowns ordered by repressive regimes entail, and how they can be bypassed
A report recently published by the UN Human Rights Office highlights the fact that Internet shutdown is increasingly becoming a tool used by governments around the world in the time of crisis to supress protest and hide deadly crackdowns or even military operations against civilians. Most recently, Iranian authorities cut off mobile Internet, WhatsApp, and Instagram amid protests against the killing of Mahsa Amini.
What are Internet Shutdowns and how they happen?
Internet shutdowns are measures taken by governments or entities on behalf of these governments, to intentionally disrupt access to and the use of information and communications systems online. Internet shutdowns exist on a spectrum and include everything from complete blackouts (where online connectivity is fully severed) or disruptions of mobile service to throttling or slowing down connections to selectively blocking certain platforms. Some internet shutdowns last a few days or weeks, while others persist for months or even years.
To explain how this might happen, we need to know that the Internet (as a network) is made up of a number of Internet exchange points (IXPs) which are physical location through which Internet infrastructure companies such as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) connect with each other.
These locations exist on the “edge” of different networks, and allow network providers to share transit outside their own network. Governments might order local internet service providers (ISPs) to fully disconnect online access for a particular geographic region or throughout a country. Unfortunately, ISPs may comply with government orders out of fear of retribution of legal action.
The good news is that if a government does not own and control the whole Internet Infrastructure, it might need to ask another party (IXP providers) to collaborate, which makes it a bit more challenging to have an entire Internet Blackout. Therefore, countries like China, Russia and Iran are also developing individual, “closed-off” internets, which would allow governments to cut off the country from the rest of the world wide web.
Can people bypass the shutdowns?
Depending on the scale of shutdown (and the country), there might be tools and ways to bypass the shutdowns:
- Virtual private networks (VPNs): These allow users to access many blocked sites by providing internet service based outside of a censored country using a proxy server. A caveat is that because VPNs are publicly accessible, governments can block them.
Also worth mentioning is that encryption is not enabled by default in all VPN services, and even with encryption enabled, not all your Internet traffic will be encrypted. Domain Name System (DNS) traffic, translating domain names like google.com or mdx.ac.uk to Internet Protocal addresses so browsers can load Internet resources aren’t encrypted, meaning that Internet Service providers (and the government) know what websites you are visiting even if you are using VPN.
The good news is that there is a way to encrypt DNS traffic, by configuring the browser to use DNS over TLS (DOT) or DNS over HTTPs (DoH) protocols.
Another concern related to the use of VPN is the element of trust, since VPN services keep your data.
- A good alternative to VPN is serverless tunnels such as Ngrok-tunnel, which is an open source tool that does not tunnel traffic or rely upon third-party servers, meaning governments have a much harder time blocking them.
- Deep Packet Inspection circumvention utilities such as GoodbyeDPI or Green Tunnel might be another option to bypass Deep Packet Inspection systems found in many Internet Service Providers which block access to certain websites.
Why this is important?
KeepItOn coalition, which monitors shutdown episodes across the world, documented 931 shutdowns between 2016 and 2021 in 74 countries, with some countries blocking communications repeatedly and over long periods of time. Not only do Internet shutdowns represent violations to human rights and freedom, they also inflict social and economic damage on citizens and limit their abilities to access much-needed services such as hospitals, educational institutions and public transport, which in turn deepens inequality.