The first four weeks of 2022 have seen internet shutdowns take place in both Kazakhstan and Yemen, as the two countries were entirely cut off from the global flow of online information and data.
The immediate causes and wider circumstances surrounding the two blackouts are dramatically different – in Kazakhstan, the shutdown occurred as part of a state response to widespread violent unrest, believed to have been connected with a power struggle between President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, while in Yemen it was caused by Saudi airstrikes on a key telecommunications facility. Yet both highlight the increasing importance of political control of the digital space, and offer two distinct examples of ways in which this control may be asserted – through aggressive legal and regulatory measures in the case of Kazakhstan, and in Yemen, through violent attacks on the physical infrastructure through which data flows.
The sudden and total loss of internet access across Yemen and Kazakhstan should therefore remind us of the uncomfortable truth that, even as states and societies become ever more reliant on digital technologies, those technologies remain deeply vulnerable to political, ‘real-world’ events.
Government-instigated internet shutdowns are by no means new – nor are they especially unusual. In Africa in 2019, at least 10 states staged some form of internet shutdown, in 2020 India shut down the internet over 100 times, and during protests in Egypt in January 2011 the government completely blocked internet access for five days. In Kazakhstan, the government has made numerous attempts to restrict online activity, throttling internet speeds during times of protest or live opposition events on social media, while in 2019 the state’s surveillance activities made headlines following attempts to force internet users to install a ‘national security certificate’, widely believed to have enabled the interception of encrypted data.
Although Kazakhstani state interference in the online space is far from new, the scale of January’s shutdown is unprecedented in the country’s history. A brief examination of the institutional set-up of telecommunications in Kazakhstan offers some insight into why the January shutdown – itself a response to an unprecedented wave of political unrest – was so effective. Internet access in Kazakhstan is dominated by KazakhTelecom – a company majority-owned by the state sovereign wealth fund which, along with its subsidiaries, in 2020 had a 62% share of the mobile internet market in Kazakhstan and only one major competitor, Kar-Tel. Furthermore, the 2004 ‘On Communications’ law enshrines the state’s right to limit internet access during a state of emergency.
Given state-affiliated entities’ domination of the Kazakhstani telecommunications market, it is unsurprising that the state was able to bring about an abrupt and total shutdown of the internet on 5 January, as this graph shows.
Internet traffic, disaggregated by provider, reduced abruptly to close to zero at around 11:00 UTC (17:00 East Kazakhstan Time) on 5 January, returning only intermittently over the course of the next few days. Analysis published on the site of web infrastructure company Cloudflare notes that the restoration of internet access on 5-7 January coincides with speeches made by President Tokayev, including his statement on 7 January that Kazakhstani security forces had been ordered to ‘shoot to kill without warning’.
At a time of violent political contestation within the Kazakhstani elite, Tokayev’s ability essentially to turn the internet on and off at will played a key role in determining the flow of information and allowing him to frame the crisis. This appears to have been crucial to Tokayev’s apparent victory in the power struggle with Nazarbayev, whom he removed on 5 January from his supposedly lifelong position as head of the Security Council. Control of the internet – guaranteed by both the state’s dominance in the telecommunications market and its retention of the legal power to limit internet access – was therefore essential to determining the outcome of the crisis.
Events in Yemen, meanwhile, have shown that the internet is not simply vulnerable to political interference, but, as a key strategic target, its infrastructure can be attacked and destroyed. In the early hours of Friday 21 January the country was almost entirely cut off from the internet, following Saudi airstrikes on a telecommunications facility in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah. After the start of Yemen’s civil war in 2014, land cables connected to Saudi Arabia were severed, leaving the country reliant on under-sea cables. These cables connected to landing points in Hodeidah in the west of the country and al-Ghaydah in the sparsely-populated east (although the almost total scale of the blackout suggests the al-Ghaydah landing point is not currently functional). Following the attack on the Hodeidah facility, Yemen’s net traffic dwindled to near zero, until internet connectivity was restored on the evening of 24 January.
Yemen’s blackout reminds us that all digital technologies rely on physical infrastructure – on the routers, cables and antennae through which data flows – and that this infrastructure may be targeted and even destroyed as part of wider processes of political contestation. While in Kazakhstan the shutdown was dependent on the state’s ability to control the provision of internet services, in Yemen the very structures which provide these services were attacked and destroyed.
Internet shutdowns have impacts far beyond what takes place online – they also have clear and often dramatic socio-economic consequences. In Yemen, the loss of internet access not only deprived Yemenis of access to online news and social media, but also prevented many from receiving the remittance payments they rely on to buy essential goods. Similarly, the shutdown in Kazakhstan is estimated to have cost over $429 million, with online financial services, small businesses and major industry unable to function without internet access. Disruptions to ATMs and card payment services, meanwhile, left many ordinary citizens unable to buy even food and water, clearly demonstrating the concrete harm internet shutdowns cause to people’s lives and basic wellbeing.
The consequences of the blackouts in Kazakhstan and Yemen underline how deeply digital technologies have become embedded in almost every aspect of daily socio-economic life – both in highly-digitalised states like Kazakhstan and in fragile, less-digitalised states such as Yemen. At the same time, the digital space remains subject to processes of political control and contestation – to attempts by states to limit internet access and attacks on the infrastructure which provides that access. Ultimately, while digital technologies in many ways radically differ from twentieth-century mass telecommunications technology, like radio and television they rely on a centralised system of infrastructure which makes them vulnerable to political events and interference.
Events in Kazakhstan and Yemen have demonstrated just how easily such political events may disrupt access to the digital. Understanding that internet access is inherently political allows us to examine the dynamics that lie behind these disruptions and to ask questions about how to develop a more stable and ‘democratic’ internet infrastructure. The provision of internet access is not simply an issue of technical capacity, but one deeply embedded in how political power is distributed and how it manifests itself.