Internet shutdowns have long been a tool in government toolboxes when it comes to silencing opposition and cutting off access from the outside world. The KeepItOn campaign by Access Now, a group that defends the digital rights of global Internet users, documented at least 182 Internet shutdowns in 34 countries in 2021. Many of these shutdowns occurred during public protests, elections, and wars as an extreme form of censorship in places like Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ukraine, India, and Iran.
There are a range of ways governments block or slow communications, including throttling, IP blocking, DNS interference, mobile data shutoffs, and deep packet inspection, all with similar goals: exerting control over information.
Although Internet shutdowns are largely public, it is difficult to document and track the ways in which governments implement them. The shutdowns not only impact people’s ability to participate in civil and political life and the economy but also have grave consequences for trust in democratic institutions.
We have reported on these shutdowns in the past, and for Cloudflare Impact Week, we want to tell you more about how we work with civil society organizations to provide tools to track and document the scope of these disruptions. We want to support their critical work and provide the tools they need so they can demand accountability and condemn the use of shutdowns to silence dissent.
Radar Internet shutdown alerts for civil society
We launched Radar in 2020 to shine light on the Internet’s patterns, insights, threats, and trends based on aggregated data from our network. Once we launched Radar, we found that many civil society organizations and those who work in democracy-building use Radar to track trends in countries to better understand the rise and fall of Internet usage.
Internally, we had an alert system for potential Internet disruptions that we use as an early warning regarding shifts in network patterns and incidents. When we engaged with these organizations that use Radar to track Internet trends, we learned more about how our internal tool to identify traffic distributions could be useful for organizations that work with human rights defenders on the ground that are impacted by these shutdowns.
To determine the best way to provide a tool to alert organizations when Cloudflare has seen these disruptions, we spoke with organizations such as Access Now, Internews, The Carter Center, National Democratic Institute, Internet Society, and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. After our conversations, we launched Radar Internet shutdown alerts in 2021 to provide alerts on when Cloudflare has detected significant drops in traffic with the hope that the information is used to document, track, and hold institutions accountable for these human rights violations.
Since 2021, we have been providing these alerts to civil society partners to track these shutdowns. As we have collected feedback to improve the alerts, we have seen many partners looking for more ways to integrate Radar and the alerts into their existing tracking mechanisms. With this, we announced Radar 2.0 with API access for free so academics, data sleuths, civil society, human rights organizations, and other web enthusiasts can analyze, visualize, and investigate Internet usage across the globe, based on data from our global network. In addition, we launched Cloudflare Radar Outage Center to archive Internet outages and make it easier for civil society organizations, journalists/news media, and impacted parties to track past shutdowns.
Highlighting the work of our civil society partners to track Internet shutdowns
We believe our job at Cloudflare is to build tools that improve privacy and security for a range of players on the Internet. With this, we want to highlight the work of our civil society partners. These organizations are pushing back against targeted shutdowns that inflict lasting damage to democracies around the world. Here are their stories.
Access Now’s #KeepItOn coalition was launched in 2016 to help unite and organize the efforts of activists and organizations across the world to end Internet shutdowns. It now represents more than 280 organizations from 105 countries across the globe. The goal of STOP Project (Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project) is ultimately to document and report shutdowns accurately, which requires diligent verification. Access Now regularly uses multiple sources to identify and understand the shutdown, the choice and combination of which depends on where and how the shutdown occurred.
The tracker uses both quantitative and qualitative data to record the number of Internet shutdowns in the world in a given year and to characterize the nature of the shutdowns, including their magnitude, scope, and causes.
Zach Rosson, #KeepItOn Data Analyst, Access Now, details, “Sometimes, we confirm an Internet shutdown through means such as technical measurement, while at other times we rely upon contextual information, such as news reports or personal accounts. We also work hard to document how a particular shutdown was ordered and how it impacted society, including why and how it happened.”
On how Access Now’s #KeepItOn coalition uses Cloudflare Radar, Rosson says, “We use Radar Internet shutdown alerts in both email and tweet form, as a trusted source to help verify a shutdown occurrence. These alerts and their underlying measurements are used as primary sources in our dataset when compiling shutdowns for our annual report, so they are used in an archival sense as well. Cloudflare Radar is sometimes the first place that we hear about a shutdown, which is quite useful in a rapid response context, since we can quickly mobilize to verify the shutdown and have strong evidence when advocating against it.”
The recorded instances of shutdowns include events reported through local or international news sources that are included in the dataset, from local actors through Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline or the #KeepItOn Coalition email list, or directly from telecommunication and Internet companies.
Rosson notes, “When it comes to Radar 2.0 and API, we plan to use these resources to speed up our response, verification, and publication of shutdown data as compiled from different sources. Thus, the Cloudflare Radar Outage Center (CROC) and related API endpoint will be very useful for us to access timely information on shutdowns, either through visual inspection of the CROC in the short term or through using the API to pull data into a centralized database in the long term.”
On the Internet Society Pulse platform, Susannah Gray, Director, Communications, Internet Society, explains that they strive to curate meaningful information around a government-mandated Internet shutdown by using data from multiple trusted sources, and making it available to everyone, everywhere in an easy-to-understand manner. ISOC does this by monitoring Internet traffic using various tools, including Radar. When they see something that might indicate that an Internet shutdown is in progress, they check if the shutdown meets their criteria. For a shutdown to appear on the Pulse Shutdowns Tracker it needs to meet all the following requirements. It must:
- Be artificially induced, as evident from reputable sources, including government statements and orders.
- Remove Internet access.
- Affect access to a group of people.
Once ISOC is certain that a shutdown is the result of government action, and isn’t the result of technical errors, routing misconfigurations, or infrastructure failures, they prepare an incident page, collate related measurements from their trusted data partners, and then publish the information on the Pulse shutdowns tracker.
ISOC uses many resources to track shutdowns. Gray explains, “Radar Internet shutdown alerts are incredibly useful for bringing incidents to our attention as they are happening. The easy access to the data provided helps us assess the nature of an outage. If an outage is established as a government-mandated shutdown, we often use screenshots of Radar charts on the Pulse shutdowns tracker incident page to help illustrate how traffic stopped flowing in and out of a country during the shutdown. We provide a link back to the Radar platform so that people interested in getting more in-depth data can find out more.”
ISOC’s aim has never been to be the first to report a government-mandated shutdown: instead, their mission is to report accurate and meaningful information about the shutdown and explore its impact on the economy and society.
Gray adds, “For Radar 2.0 and the API, we plan to use it as part of the data aggregation tool we are developing. This internal tool will combine several outage alert and monitoring tools and sources into one single system so that we are able to track incidents more efficiently.”
OONI is a nonprofit that measures Internet censorship, including the blocking of websites, instant messaging apps, and circumvention tools. Cloudflare Radar is one of the main public data sources that they use when examining reported Internet connectivity shutdowns. For example, OONI relied on Radar data when reporting on shutdowns in Iran amid ongoing protests. In 2022, the team launched the Measurement Aggregation Toolkit (MAT), which enables the public to track censorship worldwide and create their own charts based on real-time OONI data. OONI also forms partnerships with multiple digital rights organizations that use OONI tools and data to monitor and respond to censorship events in their regions.
Maria Xynou, OONI Research and Partnerships Director, explains “Cloudflare Radar is one of the main public data sources that OONI has referred to when examining reported internet connectivity shutdowns. Specifically, OONI refers to Cloudflare Radar to check whether the platform provides signals of a reported internet connectivity shutdown; compare Cloudflare Radar signals with those visible in other, relevant public data sources (such as IODA, and Google traffic data).”
Tracking the shutdowns of tomorrow
As we work with more organizations in the human rights space and learn how our global network can be used for good, we are eager to improve and create new tools to protect human rights in the digital age.
If you would like to be added to Radar Internet Shutdown alerts, please contact [email protected] and follow the Cloudflare Radar alert Twitter page and Cloudflare Radar Outage Center (CROC). For access to the Radar API, please visit Cloudflare Radar.