Why dictators (don't) shut down the Internet

Warren Ellis's Vice column, "How to Shut Down Internets," looks at the phenomenon of Middle Eastern dictators shutting off their nation's Internet during moments of extremis. Here's the money graf:

There are two reasons why these shutdowns happen in this manner. The first is that these governments wish to black out activities like, say, indiscriminate slaughter. That much is obvious. The second is sometimes not so obvious. These governments intend to turn the internet back on. Deep down, they believe they will be in their seats the next month and have the power to turn it back on. They believe they will win. It is the arrogance of power: they take their future for granted, and need only hide from the world the corpses it will be built on.

For me, this raises a couple of much more interesting questions:

1. Why would a basket-case dictator even allow his citizenry to access the Internet in the first place? (A: Because the national economy can't function without it)

2. Why not shut down the Internet the instant trouble breaks out? (A: Because it would be immensely unpopular, even among your sympathizers; also, see 1.)

Update: Bruce Schneier adds: "The reason is that the Internet is a valuable tool for social control. Dictators can use the Internet for surveillance and propaganda as well as censorship, and they only resort to extreme censorship when the value of that outweighs the value of doing all three in some sort of totalitarian balance."

How to Shut Down Internets


  1. Because businesses in those countries make a heap of money selling stuff to first world countries and they need communications to do that. Money from those businesses helps prop the Government up.

  2. There is a 3rd reason (and arguably it should be #1) for shutting down the internet: denying an asset to your enemy. Ad-hoc rebel uprisings tend to not have robust independent communication tools (i.e. military radios) and rely on the public internet to communicate and coordinate. Being cut off hampers the uprisings efforts without seriously impacting the better equipped government troops.

  3. The problem is that they can’t shut down the internet but they can control it by not letting you write or do anything you want….They always check for keywords or phrases against them or their policy and you can get in a real trouble if they catch you doing something “Stupid” :) 

    1.  A reason to keep it on – if you gain more from keeping your activities more or less hidden, and from sometimes catching people as they attempt to evade your censorship.

  4. As to your 1. A., I’d suggest that any dictator that knows his ass from a hole in the ground would know that if his citizens didn’t have the internet in the first place, then his economy was not dependent on it. That’s just top of the head, thinking in terms of a few years back and say, central African, Middle Asian type situations.

    Then again, I might be completely out of my gourd, who knows.

  5. “Why not shut down the Internet the instant trouble breaks out?”

    Because there is ALWAYS trouble breaking out. It’s a misconception that places like Cairo or Iraq or Libya (pre-overthrow) are more or less stable and their leaders are generally popular. Instead, it’s a decades long game of whack-a-mole. It’s hard to know when trouble is “real” or whether you can just burn a couple houses out and have everyone go home.

    1. Its been my experience that its the end users who don’t understand what the internet is for, and the owners of the infrastructure have a very clear idea of what its for. And vice versa.

  6. Far sighted nut job dictators mitigate both problems by not allowing the internet to start with. North Korea and Myanmar seem to have managed it.

  7. Shutting down the internet is a guaranteed way to kneecap your country for decades (if not centuries) to come. It’s the perfect way for any aspiring 2nd or 1st world country to get fastracked to 3rd world country.

  8. Shutting off the internet is the best way to get the attention of the people who were previously at home being apathetic to your government and entertained by on-line games and videos. Those people are now bored, angry, and want to know why the internet is off, and their going to come looking for answers. They will probably find them, and quite often join whatever cause you tried to shut off the internet to stop in the first place.

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