Over the past few years, we’ve seen an increasing use of Internet shutdowns and cyberattacks that restrict the availability of information in communities around the world. In 2020, Access Now’s #KeepItOn coalition documented at least 155 Internet shutdowns in 29 countries. During the same period, Cloudflare witnessed a five-fold increase in cyberattacks against the human rights, journalism, and non-profit websites that benefit from the protection of Project Galileo.
These disruptive measures, which put up barriers to those looking to use the Internet to express themselves, earn a livelihood, gather and disseminate information, and participate in public life, affect the lives of millions of people around the world.
As described by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the Internet is not only a key means by which individuals exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression, it “facilitates the realization of a range of other human rights” including “economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to education and the right to take part in cultural life and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, as well as civil and political rights, such as the rights to freedom of association and assembly.” The effect of Internet disruptions are particularly profound during elections, as they disrupt the dissemination and sharing of information about electoral contests and undermine the integrity of the democratic process.
At Cloudflare, we’ve spent time talking to human rights defenders who push back on governments that shut down the Internet to stifle dissent, and on those who help encourage fair, democratic elections around the world. Although we’ve long protected those defenders from cyberattacks with programs like Project Galileo, we thought we could do more. That is why today, we are announcing new programs to help our civil society partners track and document Internet shutdowns and protect democratic elections around the world from cyberattacks.
Internet shutdowns intended to prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online are widely condemned, and have been described as “measures that can never be justified under human rights law.” Nonetheless, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association recently reported that Internet shutdowns have increased in length, scale, and sophistication, and have become increasingly challenging to detect. From January 2019 through May 2021, the #KeepItOn coalition documented at least 79 incidents of protest-related shutdowns, including in the context of elections.
Cloudflare runs one of the world’s largest networks, with data centers in more than 100 countries worldwide and one billion unique IP addresses connecting to Cloudflare’s network. That global network gives us exceptional visibility into Internet traffic patterns, including the variations in traffic that signal network anomalies. To help provide insight to these Internet trends, Cloudflare launched Radar in 2020, a platform that helps anyone see how the Internet is being used around the globe. In Radar one can visually identify significant drops in traffic, typically associated with an Internet shutdown, but these trend graphs are most helpful when one is already looking for something specific.
Internally Cloudflare has had an alert system for potential Internet disruptions, that we use as an early warning to shifts in network patterns and incidents. This internal system allows us to see these disruptions in real-time, and after many conversations with civil society groups that track and report these shutdowns, such as The Carter Center, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, Internet Society, Internews, The National Democratic Institute and Access Now, it was clear that they would benefit from such a system, fine-tuned to report Internet traffic drops quickly and reliably. We then built an additional validation layer and a notification system that sends notifications through various channels, including e-mail and social media.
“In the fight to end internet shutdowns, our community needs accurate reports on internet disruptions at a global scale. When leading companies like Cloudflare share their data and insights, we can make more timely interventions. Together with civil society, Cloudflare will help #KeepItOn.”
— Peter Micek, General Counsel, Access Now
“Internet shutdowns undermine election integrity by restricting the right of access to information and freedom of expression. When shutdowns are enacted, reports of their occurrence are often anecdotal, piecemeal, and difficult to substantiate. Radar Alerts provide The Carter Center with real-time information about the occurrence, breadth, and impact of shutdowns on an election process. This information enables The Carter Center to issue evidence-backed statements to substantiate harms to election integrity and demand the restoration of fundamental human rights.”
— Michael Baldassaro, Senior Advisor, Digital Threats to Democracy at The Carter Center.
“Internet censorship, throttling and shutdowns are threats to an open Internet and to the ability of people to access and produce trustworthy information. Internews is excited to see Cloudflare share its data to help raise the visibility of shutdowns around the world.”
— Jon Camfield, Director of Global Technological Strategy, Internews
Now, as we detect these drops in traffic, we may still not have the expertise, backstory or sense of what is happening on the ground when this occurs — at least not in as much detail as our partners. We are excited to be working with these organizations 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.