Today the NGO Pulse publishes the process report of the Southern Africa Regional Dialogue on Internet Access. The Southern Africa Regional Dialogue on Internet Access was realized as a result of concerns emanating from a number of regional threats to online freedoms, that manifested in internet shutdowns in the past few years. Therefore, a need was identified for a proactive response to this serious assault on citizens’ online freedoms through convening a regional meeting to discuss these challenges. A multi-stakeholder dialogue - including civil society, academics, government representatives, digital techs, MNOs and ISPs - discussed shutdowns and possible push-back strategies. Further, presentations and discussions covered issues hindering internet access such as the high cost of data and unavailability largely among poor communities.
The result was a two days’ dialogue that received four researched presentations; engaged in dialogue regarding challenges posed by the internet shutdowns in the region and how it affected the societies; and the delegation came up with possible intervention strategies and advocacy processes against these shutdowns.
Everything being connected today may bring along significant convenience, but it also implies that everything can be hacked. What if the nation’s power grid were successfully attacked? No electricity also means no internet access. The internet also relies on physical infrastructure, such as subsea cables and other fiber cables: any infrastructure issues (cable cuts, damages), whether due to criminal activity or natural disasters that were to affect major subsea cables could potentially shut down the Internet.
Certainly, there’s a lot of stuff on the internet that isn’t critical infrastructure these are things that are ancillary, but which many people would consider important communications channels. Things like Facebook, for instance. Nobody’s going to immediately get injured or die if Facebook went offline but it might push traffic that’s typically on that platform to a different platform, like the telephone, which might not be able to handle that influx.
More important are the critical infrastructure systems things which, if they stopped working, would cause immediate danger. For instance, gas and power in the winter, or keeping reactors in check, and making sure water systems are working. The internet being knocked out isn’t going to cause the power to shut down but knocking out the power is going to knock out the internet. So if somebody was really trying to deny internet access in an area, they might make that their target.
The next tier would be commercial systems if a company’s website goes offline, it’s not going to cause famine, or injure or kill someone, but it could be very detrimental. Shutting down the entire internet would be about as difficult as shutting down all of the roads in the world, an analogy I’ll use below.
An attacker could cripple a lot of traffic on the internet by using a backhoe and/or submarines to cut many of the key fiber-optic cables that serve as the backbone of the internet. This would be similar to disrupting automotive traffic by damaging major highways all around the world. It would stop or slow long distance communication, which is much more common on the internet than long distance travel is on roads. This would be massively disruptive, but large parts of the internet would still be able to communicate locally.
You can download the Process Report from NGO Pulse as of today. We hope the civil society shall now engage in oncoming strategic interventions to avoid these limitations to internet access.