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Q: We just wrote about 48-hour voluntary “news blackouts.” What happens in countries where the government can decree news blackouts?

Credit: Freedom House

A:

Two words: Bad. Things.

Imagine if, after writing your News Blackout essay for our class, you began to search for current news again only to discover that dozens of sites you normally visit were now blocked. Or worse, that you had no internet access at all. And no idea when it would be restored.

This is exactly what’s been going on with increasing freqency in an increasing number of countries around the globe—and the American media have been covering the subject a lot of late. In The New York Times, a September 2 story diagrams how Zimbabwe’s leaders temporarily shut down internet access in the wake of violent protests over a struggling economy. The story further examines how internet shutdowns are becoming “one of the defining tools of government repression in the 21st century”—most often in Asia and Africa. The Washington Post picked up on that Times piece with its own editorial-board opinion column a few days later. An alarming aspect of this trend is that it’s not just overtly repressive regimes like those in China and Russia that keep a tight rein on internet access through active censorship and monitoring of social media. India is the world’s largest democracy. But freedom of information there? According to the Post, not so much: There have been 159 intentional web disruptions in India since 2016.

Much of the data referenced in these two articles comes from an independent watchdog organization called Access Now. It advocates for digital access and tracks government-instigated internet shutdowns around the globe in studies like this one.

Infogragphic credit: accessnow.org

What do ordinary citizens trapped in the fallout from internet shutdowns do? They struggle. If they’re scientists, their research is disrupted. If they’re business folks, their cash flows can be impacted. Desperate for email communication, some literally leave their country for a phone signal; or give their phone to someone else to take across borders and out of internet dead zones; or surreptitiously buy contraband SIM cards, at greatly inflated black-market prices.

So as you turn your smartphones and your TVs and your laptops and your tablets back on after our news-blackout exercise, remember: Something like half the planet can’t count on being able to do the same.