An internet blackout in Belarus last week was the latest reminder of why an open internet is essential to human rights in the 21st century. The Belarusian government began disrupting internet service early on Sunday, Aug. 9, shortly before voting started in a presidential election that opposition candidates and activists believe was rigged in favor of longtime strongman Alexander Lukashenko. By the end of the day, when protesters flooded into the street, the internet blackout had grown more entrenched, preventing real-time coverage of the bloody crackdown that ensued. According to the independent monitoring group NetBlocks, service only resumed on the morning of Aug. 12. By that point, more than 6,000 people had been arrested and many opposition leaders driven out of the country, including the main opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. During the blackout, one of the few lifelines between protesters and the outside world was an information channel called Nexta, operating out of Poland through the messaging app Telegram.
What happened in Belarus is a reminder of why a free and open global internet is vital for democracy. Perhaps most famously, the Chinese Communist Party has fenced off China’s internet from the rest of the world. The Chinese people are surveilled, censored, and manipulated with propaganda and disinformation through apps, networks, and networking equipment controlled by Chinese companies that are held liable for everything their users say and do. China’s “sovereign internet” doctrine—which states that all governments have a sovereign right to control what technologies and networks their citizens can use and how they can use them—appeals to many world leaders who fear strong political opposition. Internet sovereignty is embraced not only by the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin but also by democratically elected populist leaders seeking to shore up their power. For example, India’s Narendra Modi recently moved to block Chinese apps including WeChat and TikTok, citing national security concerns, with the side benefit of denying activists channels for dissent.