The Dictators’ Digital Dilemma: When Do States Disconnect Their Digital Networks?

Executive Summary

When do governments decide to interfere with the Internet, and why? While many observers celebrate the creative use of digital media by activists and civil society leaders, there are a significant number of incidents involving government-led Internet shutdowns. Governments have offered a range of reasons for interfering with digital networks, employed many tactics, and experienced both costs and benefits in doing so.

When and why do states disconnect their digital networks is a principle question we examine in this paper. To answer this question, we built an event history database of incidents in which a regime went beyond mere surveillance of particular websites or users, and actually disconnected Internet exchange points or blocked significant amounts of certain kinds of traffic. All in all, there were 606 unique incidents involving 99 countries since 1995:  39 percent of the incidents occurred in democracies, 6 percent occurred in emerging democracies, 52 percent occurred in authoritarian regimes, and 3 percent occurred in fragile states. Then we developed three standardized typologies for the kinds of incidents being reported.  First, we developed a category that iteratively helped define the case, and a typology of actions that states take against social media. Second, we developed a category for why they took that action, sometimes relying on third-party reports if the state simply denied any interference.  Finally, we developed a category for the impact of the interference.

We find that overall more democracies participate in network interventions than authoritarian regimes. However, authoritarian regimes conduct shutdowns with greater frequency. After 2002, authoritarian governments clearly began using such interference as tool of governance. In recent years, even fragile states have interfered with domestic information infrastructure, usually as a last effort at maintaining social control.