Internet shutdowns have serious consequences for press freedom and leave journalists struggling to do their job effectively, CPJ has found. Turning off or limiting access to the internet means that media workers are unable to contact sources, fact check data, or file stories until after an event has happened. Shutdowns are more likely to happen during times of conflict, political unrest or during an election period and are used by governments to limit the public’s access to information, according to international monitors at Access Now.
There are different types of internet shutdowns and they may occur throughout a country or only in certain regions. Journalists facing a total shutdown will witness a complete disruption of the internet and telecommunications, meaning that they are unable to access the internet or contact others by landline or cell phone. Governments may order internet service providers to restrict specific sites or services, such as communications apps or YouTube, in a partial shutdown that may also restrict media workers’ ability to communicate with others or upload content onto the internet. Another method of controlling the internet is to slow down the internet speed, rendering it effectively useless as pages are unable to load and people are unable to upload content.
Preparation is key when it comes to dealing with all types of internet shutdowns. The following information can be useful for journalists concerned about internet shutdowns.
General digital security best practice
Having good digital security practices set up in advance of a shutdown will mean you are better prepared and better protected when reporting during an internet blackout.
- Secure your devices and limit the amount of information available on them to better protect you and your sources should you be detained while reporting during a shutdown.
- Use end-to-end encrypted messaging apps to contact others. End-to-end encryption means that content sent via the app, including calls, is encrypted and cannot be intercepted in transit. Examples include Signal or WhatsApp, companies who do not have access the content of messages and therefore cannot be subpoenaed by governments.
Learn more about device security and encrypted communications in the CPJ Digital Safety Kit.
Preparing for internet shutdowns
- Predict when an internet or communications shutdown will occur. This will likely include times of civil unrest, protests, and during election periods. Some regions of your country may be more prone to internet restrictions than others.
- Keep an eye on changes to legislation that allow governments to cut access to the internet and other forms of communication. Research what other governments in the surrounding region are doing with regards to internet and communications shutdowns.
- Speak with your newsroom and colleagues about planning for a complete shutdown. Create a plan detailing where and when to meet in person, and how you will document and transmit information to editors without using the internet. Consider sharing landline contact details, but be aware that landline calls are insecure and should not be used for sensitive conversations. Plan how you will support colleagues who may be living and working in a region or area that is likely to be affected by a shutdown.
- Print out any documents or content from online sites that you might need in advance of a shutdown.
- Provide staff with USB drives or CDs for data storage during the shutdown
Choose the right tools
Online tools and services are vulnerable to security breaches. Journalists are advised to stay up to date with the latest digital safety information especially when it comes to communication tools, such as messaging apps. The following advice is current as of April 2021.
- Download and set up VPN services to help you access blocked sites during a partial shutdown. Internet service providers frequently block VPNs, so it is recommended to have a number of options available. Some governments have outlawed the use of VPNs so be informed of the law in your country. A VPN will not help you during a complete internet shutdown.
- Have more than one way to contact others. Downloading and setting up a variety of communications apps will mean that you can change between services should one become blocked. Be aware of the security vulnerabilities that may exist with different apps. For example, some services may require you to turn on encryption rather than it being the default. During an internet shutdown you may be forced to communicate via more insecure means, such as SMS, so be mindful of how you share sensitive data.
- Learn how you can share data using Bluetooth, WiFi Direct, and Near Field Communication (NFC). These methods allow you to pair your phone with another to transmit information, and do not need access to the internet. They can normally be found in the settings section of your phone. Practice using them before a shutdown occurs and understand their limitations when it comes to sharing files.
- Download and set up peer-to-peer messaging tools, such as Briar or Bridgefy. Briar is an end-to-end encrypted messaging app that works via internet, WiFi Direct, and Bluetooth. Bridgefy has fewer security features than Briar, but will work over longer distances.
- Access to an international SIM card with roaming or a satellite phone can give you access to the internet. Be aware of the security risks of using these services, especially with regards to location tracking. Check whether they are legal in the country you are in.
During an internet shutdown
- Reporting during an internet shutdown may make you more vulnerable to being detained, depending on the circumstances. Ensure that your devices do not have any sensitive information on them that could put you or others at risk.
- Even if it is difficult to report in real time, you may still be able to document what is happening. Use USBs or CDs, encrypted if possible, to store data and hand it to colleagues and editors. Be aware that if information on these devices is not encrypted it could be accessed by the authorities if you are detained.
- Share files between devices using Bluetooth, WiFi Direct or NFC (usually found under device settings). Be aware that transmitting data this way is not secure, and anything you use should be turned off immediately after use to avoid your device linking up with unknown devices nearby.
- Use peer-to-peer communication apps, such as Briar and Bridgefy. Be aware of the security risks of each one.
- Try to avoid using insecure communications methods, such as SMS or phone calls, for sensitive information during a shutdown. These communications methods can be intercepted or accessed by governments, for example, via your telecommunications provider.
- Android phone users can use F-Droid to download apps without needing a connection to the internet. Another option for Android is to use an APK file to install an app. These app files can be shared between devices without connecting to an app store, but are not subject to app store vetting, so only accept files from people you trust.
- Document the shutdown by taking screenshots of blocked sites. You can share this information at a later date with digital rights organizations in your country or internationally. Be aware that doing so may put you at risk.
After an internet shutdown
- Speak with your newsroom or colleagues about what worked and what didn’t when it came to preparing for an internet shutdown.
- Review your devices, backup and remove content to an external drive or to the cloud. Where possible, encrypt your data to keep it more secure.
- Access Now’s Internet shutdowns and elections handbook and report, “Shattered dreams and lost opportunities,” has more information on internet shutdowns;
- Witness has detailed guides on how to set up your phone to work offline and how to document events during a shutdown;
- Amnesty International’s shutdown toolkit includes how to document and communicate human rights violations during an internet shutdown.