Information wants to be free: telecoms under repression and unrest

Information wants to be free: telecoms under repression and unrest
In times of crisis and repression, telecom customers have been – and continue to be – subjected to restrictions on free communications to manage perceptions and stifle any dissenting voices. From Ukraine and Myanmar to Cuba and Afghanistan, how do telcos operating in unstable markets manage, and how have customers in these regions taken it upon themselves to improve services?

For as long as mass communication technologies have existed, those with power have sought to regulate and control the flow of information in times of unrest.

One of the first campaigns of mass telecommunications censorship in the 1910s saw Danish phone calls and telegrams monitored and restricted to ensure the country remained neutral and out of the First World War. Decades later in 1952, fearing Western espionage, Joseph Stalin had phone lines between East and West Berlin severed, remaining cut until 1971.

As events in Kazakhstan, Burkina Faso and the ongoing situation in Ukraine have reminded us already this year, in the event of civil disorder, telecoms networks are critical infrastructure, and are often one of the first targets in attempts to quell dissent.

Mobile services and Internet remain largely intact in Ukraine, despite the heavy attacks on civilian infrastructure, with domestic CSPs uniting to offer unfettered national roaming. Furthermore, international telcos are providing calls and texts to the country free of charge, whilst a shipment of Starlink terminals has been provided to ensure that vital communications continue, giving the world a view of the invasion from inside.
As the Kremlin wages a domestic battle to censor reports of the invasion from social media, it’s worth remembering that these disruptions and infringements on open communications don’t always come from an external aggressor.

Making this task easier is the threat of international sanctions; Cogent, one of the world’s largest connectivity providers, announced it was shutting down services in Russia, claiming that sanctions make operating in the country no longer viable. This decision will have major implications for the Russian telecoms market going forward, affecting customers of Transtelecom, Megafon, VEON and state provider Rostelecom.

Andrew Sullivan, president of the Internet Society, has warned of unintended consequences of these moves, arguing that “Cutting a whole population off the Internet will stop disinformation coming from that population – but it also stops the flow of truth.”

39% of users worldwide lack Internet freedom, according to Freedom House’s global ranking, with Iceland ranking highest with 96 points and China ranking lowest at 10 points. The global average Internet freedom score, according to their metrics, sits at 53 points:

Coming close to the bottom is Myanmar, where little over a year ago, a military coup deposed the civilian government, an event preceded by an Internet outage, where nationwide coverage fell to 50%. The next day, the military government took over the country’s parliament, an event seen by the world thanks – unwittingly – to the footage of an aerobics teacher livestreaming nearby that morning:

Following the coup, Norwegian CSP Telenor continued to operate its local network, greatly expanding the number of services offered to its customers in the country, including free calls to emergency services when their balance has run out, and unmetered access to their app. Telenor also continued to provide mobile money services, a lifeline for a country where 70% of the population are not served by traditional banks.

However, despite Telenor’s “commitments to human rights, responsible business, and international best practices” in the face of difficult working conditions, the sale of the Myanmar division to a Lebanese investment firm has subsequently been approved.

Further complicating the situation is the case of a Telenor Myanmar customer filing a complaint with the Norwegian Data Protection Authority, saying the sale of the division could result in “the dangerous transfer of control over sensitive user data.”

For Internet users in North Korea, the state-controlled Kwangmyong national Intranet provides services including ecommerce and banking – though a two-tiered system ensures that the country’s elite enjoy a tad more browsing freedom.

Another such network is in operation in Cuba; until 2013, Internet was largely a luxury only available to tourists, due to decades of embargo and government suspicion of outside interference.

To plug the gap, SNET, a decentralised public network, sprang up, managed by an army of volunteer enthusiasts through a homemade network of short-range transmitters and cables snaking high above the streets. Key to SNET’s success was its peer-to-peer configuration, with every connected computer acting as a node, ensuring an unprecedented degree of stability and resiliency despite its rather ramshackle set-up:

For their streaming enjoyment, Cubans can also make use of El Paquete Semanal (“The Weekly Package”), a terabyte-sized compilation delivered on USB via “sneakernet,” containing the latest movies, TV shows, music and classifieds ads.

Eventually, Cuba legalised private Wi-Fi and outlawed community-run networks in 2019, with authorities commandeering SNET’s extant infrastructure to build a new state-run network. However, services remain prohibitively slow and unreliable, with the national telecoms firm ETECSA maintaining a monopoly on connectivity.

Moving on from the Caribbean to Afghanistan, where, until the fall of the Taliban in 2001, mobile networks and the Internet were non-existent, banned under their most puritan interpretation of Islamic law. Afghanistan’s first mobile network launched in 2002 after an embargo imposed on the regime was lifted. Considered one of the few success stories of post-occupation, the country’s telecommunications industry was responsible for 12% of government revenues at its peak.

The Taliban, in turn, got online, expanding their use of technology and waging social media influence campaigns. Now back in power, they are asserting their control over the country’s Internet they had once been so stringently opposed to.

Whether the sneakernet culture – content dealers, or computer kar, selling pirated TV shows and app updates, downloaded from stable connections for wider distribution – can survive this revanchist regime is another question.

For example, MTN Group sold its holdings in Afghanistan, along with many more of its Middle East operations, stating that operating in “conflict markets” in the region was becoming “increasingly complex.”

For those exclaiming it couldn’t happen here, Europe saw its first Internet shutdown in 2020, with Belarus severing connections in response to protests following contested election results. With the number of protests across the world trending upwards, what would it take for a so-called democratic government to instigate an Internet shutdown in response to unrest?

There is already precedent; in April 2019, British Transport Police shut off Wi-Fi across Tube stations in London to disrupt activity by Extinction Rebellion protestors, while in the US, the Communications Act of 1934 has long granted authorities the power to shut down wireless communications in the event of a “disaster or national emergency.” In fact, it’s India that’s responsible for the most Internet shutdowns, having suspended regional services 109 times in 2020 alone, often around elections and times of potential civil unrest.

Aside from the humanitarian impact, Internet shutdowns inflict a severe economic cost. In 2021 alone, 50 Internet shutdowns in 21 countries cost a total of $5.45 billion, with Myanmar suffering the greatest losses, worth $2.8 billion that year alone. As more and more of our lives and work are conducted online, such actions could have more far-reaching consequences in the not-too-distant future.

In a more optimistic time, many dubbed the Arab Spring as the Twitter Revolution, owing to the decisive impact of Internet services and social media in mobilising and organising protests, and in getting the message out to the wider world. Apt then that Twitter’s direct predecessor was designed to unite protestors and allow them to communicate en masse during the 2004 Republican Party Convention in New York.

Unfortunately, these events equally woke many up to the more repressive power of these technologies, making them the first target in developments since.

For telcos operating in unstable (or otherwise) regions of the globe, cyberspace increasingly becomes another theatre of conflict. Resilience and flexibility in the face of disorder (or a total breakdown in order) is of the utmost importance to safeguard access and ensure continuity of services – services that, for many users at times like these, may become the difference between life and death.

To further quote Andrew Sullivan: “The Internet is a tool to help them understand what is going on, and to communicate their struggle. It is a tool for the oppressed to show their oppression. If we try to bend it only to the will of governments, we will break it, losing all of these opportunities.”