those of the Iranian government The recent attempts over the past few months to stifle protests with internet blackouts, digital lockdowns and content bans are a particularly extreme example of just how far regimes can go in restricting digital access. However, a new report by internet infrastructure company Cloudflare, released today, highlights the staggering global prevalence of disconnections and their increasing impact on people and organizations around the world.
In 2022, Cloudflare began releasing reports compiling its internal observations of government internet outages and notable outages worldwide. As a content delivery network that also offers digital resiliency services, the company sees a number of signals when any part of the internet goes dark. For example, Cloudflare can evaluate Internet protocol queries such as those for the Border Gateway Protocol routing system or the Internet Address Book Domain Name System to gain insight into how a government conducted a shutdown and where in the Internet backbone they implemented connection blocking.
The specific geopolitical context and technical nuances of various digital disruptions can make it difficult or unhelpful to make granular comparisons of different incidents. But Cloudflare, which operates in more than 100 countries and connects to more than 10,000 network providers, uses its vantage point and visibility on the global internet to track broader trends and provide a sense of how pervasive internet shutdowns have become.
“Breakdowns are increasingly being used as a means of controlling communications,” said David Belson, Head of Data Insight at Cloudflare and a longtime researcher in the field of internet disruption. “There are single points of failure for internet connectivity, and things outside of your control can impact your business, your organization, and how you work together. So if you are in a position of responsibility, you may need to factor that into your risk matrix and think about specific steps to ensure your online presence and online work remains uninterrupted.”
The new report, which looks at incidents from the fourth quarter of 2022, concluded that internet disruption-related activity was actually lower, or “slightly less active,” as Belson puts it, than in previous quarters last year . Still, the report listed deliberate shutdowns and disruptions in Bangladesh, Cuba, Iran, Kenya, Pakistan, Sudan and Ukraine, as well as the United States, where Moore County, North Carolina, coped with multi-day internet outages thanks to attackers shooting at two Substations that cause power outages. In Ukraine and Iran in particular, Cloudflare’s reporting was a continuation of ongoing surveillance and incidents.
An Internet shutdown imposed by the Cuban government on October 1 was a follow-up to shutdowns that began in late September to contain protests. The uprisings came in response to a hurricane that caused power outages on the island nation and a widespread public feeling that the Cuban government had screwed up the reconstruction effort.
The report also highlights an accidental cable break in Britain’s Shetland Islands in October, as well as technical outages in Australia, Haiti and Kyrgyzstan.
“The interesting thing about internet shutdowns is that we don’t typically see governments shutting off electricity, water or gas. They are targeting the internet because they believe it is imperative to stop the flow of information,” said John Graham Cumming, Cloudflare’s chief technical officer. “For many of us, the Internet is an indispensable tool that we cannot live without. These things really have an impact, including an economic impact.”
Graham Cumming and Belson note that in many places they are seeing increasing government reliance on digital lockdowns and temporary, recurring shutdowns – a trend that is very likely to continue. It even has get mean in some countries to impose disconnections for a few hours a day during university exams, ostensibly to reduce the possibility of student cheating. And in places like Ukraine, where connectivity outages are caused by ongoing wartime attacks on critical infrastructure, the impact is relentless and serves as a particularly sobering example of this new digital normal.