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Calculating The Cost Of Switching It Off

The Internet lets us connect, share and explore our human potential

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Globally, so much of our employment, social, educational and economic activities rely on the Internet. For anyone who is used to being connected, the impact of suddenly losing it is frustrating at best, devastating at worst.

Just imagine the effects a 94-day shutdown had on local entrepreneurs in “Silicon Mountain” Cameroon in 2017. Countless stories detailed the turmoil of lost contracts, business closures and heart-breaking accounts of fired employees. India is the country that has implemented the most shutdowns with more than a hundred in 2018 alone, switching it off due to political turmoil, protests, military operations or even to prevent cheating during examinations.

We can’t quantify the human cost of switching off the Internet, but we can quantify the economic cost. We’ve read the headlines: Internet shutdowns cost countries $2.4 billion last year ; New Report Reveals the Economic Costs of Internet Shutdowns ; Internet shutdown cost Indian economy $3 billion from 2012-17: Study ; Cost of Africa's internet shutdowns? $1m a day – quarter of a billion total.

Internet shutdowns cost millions. No, wait a minute…tens of millions. Actually, make that billions of dollars. Many existing studies use different indicators and timeframes, making them hard to compare. And it matters whether you’re measuring the cost for a city, a country or around the world; and whether you’re looking at it over a day, week, month or year.

Even for seasoned economists and statisticians, costing calculations can be complex. A few non-profit organizations have teamed up to help shed light on what switching off the Internet is really costing us. The tool, simply known as the, the Cost of Shutdown Tool (COST), is a data-driven online policy instrument that can quickly estimate the economic impact of Internet shutdowns and online restrictions. Created by Netblocks, it uses key regional indicators from the World Bank, ITU, Eurostat and the U.S. Census, the tool was devised through amethodology of the Brookings Institution and other open data sources.

It launches on 10 December, International Human Rights Day, as a way to underscore that access to the Internet is a fundamental right.   

If you knew that pulling the plug on your neighbourhood’s Internet connection was going to cost local businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost sales and productivity and cost dozens of people their jobs, you would probably avoid doing it. Or at least be better able to weigh the costs and benefits.

We hope this time-saving tool will be put to use by journalists, academics, businesses, advocates and policy-makers alike to raise awareness and advocate against shutdowns. 

Keep it on

There has been a worrying upsurge in network shutdowns. They have gained increasing global attention ever since the uprising in Egypt in 2011, when authorities shut down the Internet for nearly a week to disrupt protestors’ communications. 

Such blackouts have deeper impacts on countries where networks are still very much in developing stages. They shake users’ trust in the Internet as an infrastructure that supports and improves their economic activities. 

Network disruptions hinder productivity, erode business confidence, and can be detrimental to future investments. As such, venture capitalists and investors should integrate the cost of potential shutdowns as part of their risk assessment. Development banks and lending agencies could also include such assessments as part of their investment and funding policies and conditions.

The kind of long-term ICT-led growth that global leaders vowed to pursue under the Sustainable Development Agenda cannot be promoted when users don’t know whether they’ll be connected or not tomorrow. 

Most often, governments cite political and national security concerns to justify curtailing Internet access. But there is currently no evidence of the effectiveness of shutdowns to solve the issues they propose to address—in particular when they aim to restore public order. 

In fact, they often produce just the opposite, as international attention and pressure on offending countries where attempts to silence voices has the unintended consequence of giving them even more attention. 

Because such restrictions smother freedom of expression and other human rights, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning the intentional shutdown or disruption of Internet access as a “violation of international human rights law” and calling on all states to cease such measures.

Against this backdrop, a growing number of governments, businesses, civil society organizations, technical bodies and individuals have been speaking up and pushing back against Internet shutdowns. The Keep It On! coalition gathers over 130 organizations and 50,000 individuals from more than 50 countries.

The Internet lets us connect, share and explore our human potential. There are economic as well as human costs in shutting down the Internet. Governments should understand the cost of shutting it down and we hope tools like COST will help convince them to keep it on.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Constance Bommelaer de Leusse

The author is Senior Director Global Internet Policy, The Internet Society

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