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Myanmar: How repressive regimes quash dissent with Internet shutdowns

February 2, 2021, 4:21 PM UTC

Ten years ago, a desperate Egyptian government, led by then-President Hosni Mubarak, ordered the nation’s Internet to be shut down, a ploy to stymie pro-democracy protests.

The move backfired. The countrywide service outage, ironically, drew more people outdoors to learn what was going on. As bigger crowds took to city streets, the so-called Arab Spring uprising swelled—ultimately forcing Mubarak to resign. (Little else in Egypt and across the region changed, sadly.)

Egypt’s extraordinary maneuver, while not unprecedented, became the most visible example of a political leader flipping the “kill switch” and plunging a citizenry into digital oblivion. The tactic has been taken up with zeal—and to far greater success—by other repressive regimes since, says Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis at IT network observatory Kentik, who has been studying such outages for years.

Government-directed Internet shutdowns are, troublingly, on the rise. Such outages occurred 213 times in 2019, up from 196 instances in 2018, the latest years for which data are available, per Access Now, a nonprofit group that advocates against Internet shutdowns. (The group says its report covering 2020 is slated to publish later this month.)

Uganda is one recent Internet-severing offender. Last month the country implemented a five-day shutdown on the eve of a hotly contested presidential election. The United States, an important military ally, is said to be considering censuring the supposed victor, incumbent President Yoweri Museveni, over allegations of violence and election fraud.

Uganda’s action isn’t even the latest example of a blackout. Myanmar pulled the plug during a military coup d’état this weekend, as Aaron noted in yesterday’s newsletter. The country has a long history of such chicanery—including an incident in 2007 that predates even Egypt’s seminal service disruption.

The Internet is not an unalloyed good, of course. Two years ago, Facebook—a company whose services are essentially synonymous with the Internet in Myanmar—acknowledged that it wasn’t “doing enough to help prevent its platform” from being abused to contribute to a genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya ethnic minority.

But as damaging as the Internet can be when it’s up, it can be more so when it’s down. Since Facebook’s admission, Myanmar’s government has taken to shrouding its conflict-torn regions in the darkness of disconnection to cover up its atrocities and campaigns of persecution. “Every shutdown is a massive violation of human rights,” says Peter Micek, general counsel at Access Now.

Internet shutdowns “hurt ordinary people by depriving us of our fundamental rights to access information, to connect with family members, and they also put our physical safety at risk,” Micek says. The COVID-19 pandemic heightens the stakes as outages render emergency services and health, safety, and travel information inaccessible.

Some weeks ago, when the United States was contending with its own insurrection, I discussed the nature of coups d’etat and how, last century, usurpers tended to seize TV stations before storming presidential palaces. The examples of Egypt, Uganda, and Myanmar signal an evolution of the power-grab playbook. The media formats have changed, but the strategy remains the same: Restrict the free flow of information.

Tyranny adores a vacuum.

Robert Hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett

robert.hackett@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Wanna move into a fool's gold room. Amazon is set to report earnings after market-close today. The e-commerce behemoth is expected to post record quarterly sales in excess of $100 billion. The company also gave the Wall Street Journal as sneak-peek at its architectural designs for HQ2, the campus for its second headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. The centerpiece is a soaring, tree-lined tower called "the Helix"—and it looks real trippy.

Standing on a line doin' jiu jitsu. TikTok-maker ByteDance is suing rival WeChat-maker Tencent over alleged monopolistic practices. ByteDance says Tencent broke antitrust law by blocking content from Douyin, another one of ByteDance's apps. Elsewhere in China, Alibaba says it is working with government officials to get its Ant Group financial arm into regulatory compliance after watchdogs put the kibosh on its IPO.

Falling like a hot knife. The share price of GameStop, once the hottest stock in all the land, is plummeting like crazy and surprising absolutely no one. The stock's price fell 60% to $92 this morning. Upstart brokerage Robinhood, ground-zero for the epic GameStop short squeeze by retail investors, just raised an additional $2.4 billion in funding led by venture capital firm Ribbit Capital after getting a $1 billion injection last week. 

With the Lamborghini Shih Tzu. Tesla is recalling 135,000 Model S luxury sedans and Model X sport-utility vehicles over malfunctioning touchscreens. Updating the vehicle systems is expected to cost somewhere between $200 million and $250 million, reports the Wall Street Journal. In other news, Ford inked a big, six-year deal with Google that will provide the carmaker with Android software for infotainment systems and cloud computing services. 

With the luminous moves. Two incoming SPACs for your radar screen. Astra Space, a small rocket startup in Northern California, is using a so-called special purpose acquisition company to go public at a valuation of $2.1 billion. Mobile game developer Playstudios, a maker of social casino games, is taking the same approach in a deal that's poised to value the company at $1.1 billion.

Bored of these limits, let me get it. Uber is buying Drizly, an alcohol delivery app, for $1.1 billion. This is the ride-hailing firm's biggest deal since it acquired Postmates, another food delivery app, in March. The company is betting big that demand for home delivery will persist even after the pandemic.

(Also, here's your news roundup headline explainer.)

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Remote work has gone from a sideshow to mainstream reality in the span of a year. How will our world be reshaped by the new norm of Zoom-ing? The Atlantic's Derek Thompson offers four predictions. First, people will live further away from offices, making commutes longer and more infrequent. Second, coastal super-cities, like New York and San Francisco, will decline. Third, other places, especially metros in the Sun Belt, will grow. And finally, industrial hubs—like Silicon Valley—will dissipate.

As a general rule of human civilization, we’ve lived where we work. More than 90 percent of Americans drive to work, and their average commute is about 27 minutes. This tether between home and office is the basis of urban economics. But remote work weakens it; in many cases, it severs the link entirely, replacing spatial proximity with cloud-based connectivity. What knock-on changes will this new industrial revolution bring?

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Elon vs. nature: Tesla is building its new Berlin factory on an endangered reptile habitat—will it matter? by Vivienne Walt

The rise of the Chief Technology Officer by Alan Murray

Everything to know about buzzy social app Clubhouse by Danielle Abril

Meet Airbnb’s host whisperer by Michal Lev-Ram

Elon Musk quizzes Robinhood’s Vlad Tenev in a Clubhouse conversation by Lucinda Shen

Reddit users say they are not behind Monday’s silver squeeze by Chris Morris

Why Europe’s summer COVID vaccination target could still be on track by David Meyer

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access.Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

BEFORE YOU GO

One of the more visible ways a wide-ranging Russian hack of America's public and private sectors is affecting the United States involves the federal court system. Lawyers are being forced to file sensitive documents in the form of paper printouts. Because the courts' electronic submission systems are believed to be compromised, copies are uploaded on-site at courthouses to special, air-gapped computers—meaning ones that are disconnected from the Internet.

"Hackers probably gained access to the vast trove of confidential information hidden in sealed documents, including trade secrets, espionage targets, whistleblower reports and arrest warrants," reports the Associated Press. "It could take years to learn what information was obtained and what hackers are doing with it."