We’ve been saying it for 20 years, and it remains true now more than ever: the internet is an essential service. It enables people to build and create communities, shed light on injustices, and acquire vital knowledge that might not otherwise be available. And access to it becomes even more imperative in circumstances where being able to communicate and share real-time information directly with the people you trust is instrumental to personal safety and survival. More specifically, during wartime and conflict, internet and phone services enable the communication of information between people in challenging situations, as well as the reporting by on-the-ground journalists and ordinary people of the news. 

Unfortunately, governments across the world are very aware of their power to cut off this crucial lifeline, and frequently undertake targeted initiatives to do so. These internet shutdowns have become a blunt instrument that aid state violence and inhibit free speech, and are routinely deployed in direct contravention of human rights and civil liberties.

And this is not a one-dimensional situation. Nearly twenty years after the world’s first total internet shutdowns, this draconian measure is no longer the sole domain of authoritarian states but has become a favorite of a diverse set of governments across three continents. For example:

In Iran, the government has been suppressing internet access for many years. In the past two years in particular, people of Iran have suffered repeated internet and social media blackouts following an activist movement that blossomed after the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman murdered in police custody for refusing to wear a hijab. The movement gained global attention and in response, the Iranian government rushed to control both the public narrative and organizing efforts by banning social media, and sometimes cutting off internet access altogether. 

In Sudan, authorities have enacted a total telecommunications blackout during a massive conflict and displacement crisis. Shutting down the internet is a deliberate strategy blocking the flow of information that brings visibility to the crisis and prevents humanitarian aid from supporting populations endangered by the conflict. The communications blackout has extended for weeks, and in response a global campaign #KeepItOn has formed to put pressure on the Sudanese government to restore its peoples' access to these vital services. More than 300 global humanitarian organizations have signed on to support #KeepItOn.

And in Palestine, where the Israeli government exercises near-total control over both wired internet and mobile phone infrastructure, Palestinians in Gaza have experienced repeated internet blackouts inflicted by the Israeli authorities. The latest blackout in January 2024 occurred amid a widespread crackdown by the Israeli government on digital rights—including censorship, surveillance, and arrests—and amid accusations of bias and unwarranted censorship by social media platforms. On that occasion, the internet was restored after calls from civil society and nations, including the U.S. As we’ve noted, internet shutdowns impede residents' ability to access and share resources and information, as well as the ability of residents and journalists to document and call attention to the situation on the ground—more necessary than ever given that a total of 83 journalists have been killed in the conflict so far. 

Given that all of the internet cables connecting Gaza to the outside world go through Israel, the Israeli Ministry of Communications has the ability to cut off Palestinians’ access with ease. The Ministry also allocates spectrum to cell phone companies; in 2015 we wrote about an agreement that delivered 3G to Palestinians years later than the rest of the world. In 2022, President Biden offered to upgrade the West Bank and Gaza to 4G, but the initiative stalled. While some Palestinians are able to circumvent the blackout by utilizing Israeli SIM cards (which are difficult to obtain) or Egyptian eSIMs, these workarounds are not solutions to the larger problem of blackouts, which the National Security Council has said: “[deprive] people from accessing lifesaving information, while also undermining first responders and other humanitarian actors’ ability to operate and to do so safely.”

Access to internet infrastructure is essential, in wartime as in peacetime. In light of these numerous blackouts, we remain concerned about the control that authorities are able to exercise over the ability of millions of people to communicate. It is imperative that people’s access to the internet remains protected, regardless of how user platforms and internet companies transform over time. We continue to shout this, again and again, because it needs to be restated, and unfortunately today there are ever more examples of it happening before our eyes.