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Manipulating Access To Communication Technology: Government Repression or Counterterrorism?

Manipulating Access To Communication Technology: Government Repression or Counterterrorism?
17th January 2022 Fatima Mustafa
In Report-Gnet

The Executive Summary and Overview is also available in French, German, Arabic, Indonesian and Japanese.

Please read on for the Overview.

Governments face a dilemma as communication technologies such as the Internet and mobile phones have spread rapidly and become central to our lives, demonstrated recently by our dependence on these technologies during the global coronavirus pandemic. If governments allow the unrestricted use of communication technologies, they risk facing opposition organised through these technologies; if they restrict access to communication technologies, they might face a backlash. This, for Kedzie, is the “dictator’s dilemma”. However authoritarian governments are not the only ones facing this dilemma: Agarwal, Howard and Hussain’s well-known work on network blackouts between 1995 and 2011 shows that 39% of these network disruptions occurred in democracies. Given the “dictator’s dilemma”, why have some democratic and non-democratic governments around the world increasingly limited access to communication networks at crucial points in time?

While governments often deny the deliberate use of network disruptions, on the occasions that they do acknowledge them, they present network disruptions as a tool to tackle violence, contain protests, ensure public safety, prevent the spread of misinformation and prevent cheating in exams. Data made available by Access Now and the #KeepItOn Coalition on network disruptions around the world between 2016 and 2019 shows that counterterrorism was the most common government justification for national-level network disruptions. In some cases, governments claim that network disruptions prevent opposition or terrorist groups from being able to coordinate with each other to plan and execute attacks, and, more broadly, such disruptions help to overcome collective action problems. Critics of network shutdowns argue that such disruptions in connectivity are detrimental to fundamental human rights, such as the right to free speech, as well as access to healthcare, education, and work. In addition, network shutdowns disrupt businesses and damage the economy. For example, India faced a huge cost of $2.8 billion last year due to Internet shutdowns. Despite the costs associated with network shutdowns in terms of both human rights violations and economic losses, we still know relatively little about whether network disruptions actually work in the ways that governments claim they do.

This report offers a preliminary analysis of the effectiveness of network disruptions in achieving one specific outcome: tackling terrorist violence. It analyses the relationship between network disruptions and deaths and injuries from terrorist attacks to determine whether there is support for the commonly made argument that network disruptions are an important counterterrorism tactic. Using a panel dataset of daily incidents of national-level network disruptions and terrorist attacks globally between 2016 and 2019, a fixed effects regression model shows that national-level network disruptions are not correlated with the number of people killed or injured in terrorist attacks. In addition, there is no correlation between a ban on social media platforms – specifically Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp – and deaths or injuries from terrorist violence. This analysis has some limitations that make it difficult to make a causal claim, such as the non-random assignment of the treatment (that is, network disruptions) and the absence of a control variable to capture increased security around network disruptions. In general, these findings offer another perspective on the debate on network shutdowns, which often centres on the implications of shutdowns for human rights and democratic engagement and does not typically delve into empirical evidence on what network shutdowns can or cannot accomplish.

The scant existing academic literature on the relationship between communication technology and the organisation and execution of violence offers conflicting findings. Some scholars argue that access to such communication technology as mobile phones and the Internet allows members of terrorist organisations to coordinate with each other and plan attacks, while others argue that communication technology is a tool that civilians can use to report terrorist activity to governments, thereby hindering violence. A few scholars have examined empirical evidence on levels of mobilisation and violence during network shutdowns to argue that network disruptions actually lead to an increase in violence and political mobilisation. Hassanpour shows this to be the case in Egypt, while Rydzak presents a similar scenario in India; in both cases network shutdowns were tied to an increase in certain forms of political mobilisation rather than a decline. In the case of Pakistan, Mustafa shows that terrorist attacks declined when the government imposed network shutdowns but increased the following day. Much of the existing work on the link between communication networks and violence is based on country-specific analyses. This report analyses the impact of network disruptions on terrorist violence in countries around the world using a rich cross-country panel dataset, thereby offering generalisable findings that add to our existing knowledge.

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