Guest Post: FreeMyInternet - Illustrating Internet Infrastructure & Shutdowns

Veronique Wavre • March 2022

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With growing attempts to censor and limit access to the Internet, the Swiss Digital Initiative is happy to feature a guest post about an overlooked topic: the digital infrastructures behind our virtual world. Based on the work of the Telecommunications Ownership and Control (TOSCO) project, funded by SNIS Geneva, & the FreeMyInternet Project funded by SNF AGORA, with Dr. Veronique Wavre, Dr. Lisa Garbe (@LaserGabi) & Professor Tina Freyburg (@TFreyburg) from the University of St. Gallen, the following post raises awareness about the hidden aspects of the Internet and introduces an educational resource for all users.

Increasingly, states all over the world use of internet shutdowns as a repression tool, especially in times of political contestation. Back in 2011, the Egyptian uprising showed how the access to the internet can be restricted arbitrarily upon a decision by the ruling elite. In Egypt, the internet was almost completely blocked for several days. Yet, before the shutdown took place, the Egyptian internet access proved resilient and survived in one way or another for up to seven days (Wilson 2015).

Motivated by the idea that governments cannot simply shut down the internet as they wish, Lisa Garbe, Tina Freyburg and myself, Veronique Wavre, decided to research the inner workings of the internet, that is, its physical infrastructure, ownership and its implications for the provision and suspension of internet services. The telecommunication ownership and control (TOSCO) project was born.

We focused our attention on the role of internet service providers (ISPs). Those companies are gateways through which data flow in and out of the territories they operate in (DeNardis 2014:11). Internet shutdowns, in fact, represent the most direct form of control over internet access, where ISPs are requested to comply with a government request to manipulate their services (Aceto & Pescapè 2015, Freyburg & Garbe 2018).

To research the role of ISPs in implementing internet shutdowns, we decided to focus on Africa, a continent with an immense political and economic diversity. We gathered data for 50 mainland countries & Madagascar over 19 years, from 2000 to 2019, enquiring which telecommunication companies had provided access to the internet during that time period in each of the countries. We furthermore gathered information about who these companies belong to (Freyburg, Garbe & Wavre). The underlying argument being that the owners of ISPs differ and so may their capacity to resist or adopt state requests to shut down the internet in times of political contestation.

© Pia Valaer

In the Summer of 2018, our TOSCO team spent several weeks in Uganda, interviewing key experts in the field, such as activists, lawyers, ISPs and state representatives. We gathered evidence that ISPs are aware of their role in implementing internet shutdowns, but tend to accept state requests, to avoid political and economic repercussions. Supported by video journalist Noémie Guignard, we released a short movie ‘Citizens Offline’, where we use the example of the internet shutdown that took place during the 2016 Ugandan elections to illustrate our work. The video follows our research and gives a voice to Ugandan activists, such as Daniel Bill Opio.