• What are political, social, and economic consequences of internet shutdowns?

  • How do ISPs typically manipulate access to internet services? 

  • In what way can internet shutdowns be seen as illegal or illegitimate?


This story discusses government-requested internet disruptions, their implementation and consequences.

Internet disruptions have become a popular tool to control the digital flow of information and communication, especially in autocracies during politically contentious times.

The most common technical strategies rely on internet service providers (ISPs) to manipulate their routing (1) or packet forwarding (2) mechanisms. ISPs can vary in their reaction to censorship requests since each ISP runs its own physical network.

(1) If an ISP withdraws its Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) routes from the internet, the blocks of IP addresses that have been allocated to it by the regional internet registry disappear from the internet. Its customers cannot access websites, send and receive email, use voice services, or anti-censorship tools such as VPNs.

(2) Using information about source and destination of a packet, notably the IP address, an ISP can manipulate access control lists so to deny traffic to or from a specific IP address, such as for Its customers cannot access this particular service, unless they access the internet with an alternative IP address through a VPN.

Internet disruptions have far-reaching economic, social, and political consequences. They limit business-customer communication and prevent citizens from holding institutions accountable, among others. The United Nations considers internet disruptions, regardless of the justification provided, to be disproportionate and a violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. They call upon all states to ensure that internet access is maintained at all times, including during times of political unrest. 


DE GREGORIO, G., & STREMLAU, N. (2020). Internet Shutdowns and the Limits of Law. International Journal of Communication 14: 4224-4243.

Discussion of the limits of law with regard to the imposition and implementation of shutdowns. In exploring the justifications of shutdowns, the authors advocate for more transparency around decision-making processes behind shutdowns.

GARBE, L. (2021). Pulling through Elections by Pulling the Plug: Internet Disruptions and Electoral Violence. Manuscript. University of St.Gallen.

Study of the role of ICT for opposition actors in authoritarian contexts with a particular focus on elections. By zooming into the case of Uganda’s presidential elections in 2016, which were accompanied by a temporary halt of access to social media, this study sheds light on the ways in which a shutdown can prevent opposition actors from challenging electoral malpractice.

GOHDES, A. (2015). Pulling the Plug: Network Disruptions and Violence in Civil Conflict. Journal of Peace Research 52(3): 352-67.

Demonstration of an increase in violence immediately before and during the Internet blackouts, Taking the fatal incidents in the Syrian civil war, as reported by human rights organizations. Disrupting access to the internet during government military operations has become a strategy of repression and eliminating the opposition.

HASSANPOUR, N. (2014). Media Disruption and Revolutionary Unrest: Evidence from Mubarak's Quasi-experiment. Political Communication 31(1): 1-24.

Using the internet blackouts in Egypt and Syria, this study argues that lapses in connectivity created “small world networks” by encouraging face-to-face interaction. The Egyptian blackout during the Tahrir Square protests increased rather than decreased coordination, perhaps because people began seeking information in face-to-face encounters and local, more dense networks. 

DAINOTTI, A, SQUARCELLA, C, ABEN, E, ET AL. (2014). Analysis of Country-wide Internet Outages Caused by Censorship.IEEE/ACM Transactions on Networking 22(4): 1964-1977.

Documentation of how internet disruptions can be detected using different types of internet traffic data. Taking the internet disruptions in Egypt and Libya in early 2011, the authors demonstrate how access can be disrupted using packet filtering or BGP route withdrawals. 


Véronique Wavre
Lisa Garbe @LaserGabi
Tina Freyburg @TFreyburg

University of St.Gallen IPW-SEPS
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CH - 9000 St.Gallen

Pia Valaer

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CH - 8048 Zürich

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