Internet shutdowns cost us a lot and smother critical freedoms

The world wide web. Progressively, Internet connectivity continues to break new ground. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Network disruptions hinder productivity, erode business confidence and can be detrimental to investments.
  • There is no evidence of the effectiveness of shutdowns — in particular, to restore public order.

So much of our employment, social, educational and economic activities rely on the internet.

We can’t quantify the human cost of internet shutdowns but we can the economic one. We’ve read such headlines: Internet shutdowns cost countries $2.4 billion last year; New report reveals the economic cost of internet shutdowns; Internet shutdown cost Indian economy $3 billion from 2012-17; and Study: Cost of Africa's internet shutdowns? $1m a day — quarter of a billion total.

The shutdowns cost billions of dollars. Countless stories of lost contracts, business closures and sacked employees followed last year’s 94-day shutdown in “Silicon Mountain” Cameroon.

India has had the most shutdowns, more than 100 in 2018 alone, due to political turmoil, protests, military operations or even to prevent examination cheating.

Many studies use different indicators and time frames, making them hard to compare. Even for seasoned economists and statisticians, costing calculations can be complex.

A few non-profit organisations have teamed up to help to shed light on what switching off the internet really costs us.


Cost of Shutdown Tool (COST), a data-driven online policy instrument, can quickly estimate the economic impact of internet shutdowns and online restrictions.

It was devised through a methodology of the Brookings Institution and other open data sources. Created by Netblocks, it uses key regional indicators from the World Bank, ITU, Eurostat and the US Census.

COST launches today, on the International Human Rights Day, as a way to underscore that access to the internet is a fundamental right.

If you knew that pulling the plug on your neighbourhood’s internet connection was going to cost local businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost sales and productivity and cost dozens of people their jobs, you would probably avoid doing it.

There has been a worrying upsurge in network shutdowns. They have gained increasing global attention ever since the 2011 uprising in Egypt, when the authorities shut down the internet for nearly a week to disrupt protesters’ communications.


Such blackouts have deeper impacts on countries where networks are still in developing stages.

They shake users’ trust in the internet as an infrastructure that supports and improves economic activities. Network disruptions hinder productivity, erode business confidence and can be detrimental to investments.

Venture capitalists and investors should integrate the cost of potential shutdowns in their risk assessment, and development banks and lending agencies in investment and funding policies and conditions.

The long-term ICT-led growth that global leaders vowed to pursue under the Sustainable Development Agenda cannot be promoted when users don’t know whether they’ll be connected or not.

Most often, governments cite political and national security concerns to justify curtailing internet access.

But there is no evidence of the effectiveness of shutdowns — in particular, to restore public order.


In fact, they often produce the opposite; international attention and pressure on countries where attempts at silencing voices has the unintended consequence of giving them more attention.

Such restrictions smother freedom of expression and other human rights; hence, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning the intentional shutdown or disruption of the internet access as a “violation of international human rights law”.

The Keep It On! coalition has more than 130 organisations and 50,000 individuals from over 50 countries.

The internet lets us connect, share and explore our human potential. There are economic as well as human costs in shutting down the internet.

Governments should understand the cost of shutting it down and we hope tools like COST will help to convince them to keep it on.

Ms De Leusse is a senior director, global internet policy, at Internet Society