Why tyrants really block the internet

As global norms against state violence rise, countries like Iran try harder to prevent videos of their police killing protesters. They are, in effect, ashamed of violating international standards.

Netblocks.org/via REUTERS
The graphic shows the shutdown of internet access in Iran during protests in mid-November.

For five days in mid-November, during one of the largest protests in Iran’s history, the regime in Tehran blocked access to almost the entire internet for the first time. In effect, it imposed an information blackout to the rest of the world. Now we know why. Videos and other reports sent out since then show police on a killing spree against peaceful protesters. At least 208 people were killed, estimates Amnesty International.

Yet the crackdown is not a big surprise, especially for a regime with declining popularity at home and a rising tendency for violence abroad. What’s new is the degree to which Iran’s leaders tried to shield their atrocities from the world’s eyes.

It is as if they know global norms favoring the protection of innocent civilians are getting stronger and the stakes for breaking those norms are getting higher. Iran clearly did not want a repeat of the iconic image from a 2009 protest that showed the killing of a young female student by security forces. Its attempt to hide the truth about last month’s violence failed.

Yet Iran is hardly alone in the way it indirectly honors global standards by hiding its actions against protesters. In August, India shut down electronic communications in Kashmir after it changed the territory’s legal status in order to prevent the world from seeing a crackdown on thousands of dissidents. China, too, has tried to block information about its human rights abuses against millions of minority Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In fact, China’s concern about international opinion may be a big reason it has not massacred pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong the way it did during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Since 2009, as global access to the internet has increased by 27%, the use of disinformation by governments has increased by 10%, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace, a nonprofit think tank. Yet the free flow of information is a main reason a majority of countries are more at peace than in the past, finds the institute.

As democracy has spread, and with it prosperity and literacy, so has the sunlight on nondemocratic actors who still see state violence as legitimate. And as more tyrants act in ways to avoid shame, the more they admit they live within humanity’s moral circles. Their attempts at darkness are a sign of light.

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