By Leigh Hartman

When Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces laid siege to Kherson in Ukraine in March, they blocked Ukrainians’ access to independent news and censored web traffic.

After the Burmese military seized power in a February 2021 coup, the military blocked internet access to undermine widespread public opposition to the coup and prevent reporting on its ongoing atrocities against the people of Burma.

In both cases, internet connectivity watchdogs quickly exposed the authoritarian crackdowns on the freedom to seek, receive and impart information, which is part of the right to freedom of expression, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Myanmar ICT for Development Organization and the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) are among a handful of companies, nonprofit groups and academic organizations that monitored and reported on internet censorship in Burma immediately after the February 2021 coup and in the months that followed.

Doug Madory, of the California-based company Kentik, which tracked Russia’s manipulation of Ukraine’s internet data in Russia-controlled Kherson, said in an August 9 blog post that Russia’s hijacking of Ukrainian cyberspace enabled the Kremlin “to surveil, intercept and block communications with the outside world.”

“This creates a grave risk for the citizens of Kherson, especially those resisting the occupation of the city,” Madory added.

Through remote and on-the-ground monitoring, these connectivity watchdogs expose internet blackouts and provide digital tools for citizens around the world to monitor connectivity in their countries.

Their efforts come as numerous governments deploy internet shutdowns, which Freedom House calls a blunt tool that can have “an incredibly broad, devastating impact” on society.

At least 182 internet shutdowns were reported in 34 countries in 2021, up from 159 shutdowns in 2020, according to Access Now, a New York–based digital rights group. In 2011, Access Now started RightsCon, an annual summit on human rights in the digital age that convenes hundreds of organizations opposed to government censorship online.

The United States and partner nations support an open, reliable and secure internet through the Freedom Online Coalition. In 2023, for the first time, the United States will chair the coalition of 34 governments that seeks to ensure free expression, free association, peaceful assembly and privacy online for everyone, everywhere.

U.S. government agencies and the private sector also work with regional partners to expand internet access in the Western Hemisphere and Africa. The United States has provided critical cybersecurity assistance to Ukraine, helping the country stay online during Russia’s brutal and unjust war.

In remarks to RightsCon on June 7, Secretary of State Antony Blinken commended those who work to ensure “that the future of technology and the future of the internet is one that actually advances freedom, that advances democratic principles, and that makes sure that together, we can build a future that reflects the values that we share.”

Banner image: Burma’s military blocked internet access after their February 2021 coup in an attempt to stifle opposition. Above, demonstrators protest the coup in Rangoon in May 2021. (© AP Images)