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What happens when the internet vanishes?

What happens when the internet vanishes?

From his high-rise desk overlooking the sprawling city of Addis Ababa, Markos Lemma has a pretty good view of things.

As the founder of technology innovation hub IceAddis, his co-working space is usually abuzz with wide-eyed entrepreneurs fuelled on strong coffee and big dreams.

But when the internet shuts down, everything is killed in its tracks.

Data shared with the BBC by digital rights group Access Now, shows that last year services were deliberately shut down more than 200 times in 33 separate countries.

“Traffic around here just stops. No one comes in – or when they do they don’t stay for long because without the internet, what are they going to do?” Markos says.

“We had a software development contract that was cancelled because we couldn’t deliver on time, because… there was internet disconnection. We’ve also [had] situations where international customers think our businesses are ignoring them, but there’s nothing we can do. ”

Motorbike drivers wait around, rather than delivering food. Without an internet connection, people cannot order online or on apps, says Markos.

“Internet shutdowns have a direct consequence on businesses and people here.”

Disconnecting the web

It is not just Ethiopia, and the impact is not only economic. Access Now’s research shows that blackouts are affecting tens of millions of people all over the world in various ways.

Government officials are able to “switch off” the internet by ordering service providers to block certain areas from receiving signals – or sometimes, by blocking access to specific web services.

Human rights groups are concerned that the measure is becoming a defining tool of government repression around the world.

This new data analysed by the BBC suggests that disruption is increasingly linked to times of protest.

It shows that in 2019 the internet was switched off during more than 60 protests, and 12 cases occurred during election periods.

Governments often say a shutdown is to help ensure public safety and to stop the spread of fake news.

But critics say they stifle the flow of information online – and crack down on any potential dissent offline.


The UN declared internet access to be a human right in 2016, and achieving universal access is one target of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

However, not all leaders subscribe to that idea.

In August 2019, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared that the internet is “not water or air” and that shutdowns would remain an important tool for national stability.


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