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How to Characterize an Internet Shutdown

It has unfortunately become common for governments to limit or shut down Internet access during times of protest and civil unrest. I am hoping the following questions and recommendations will help you when you are affected by one of these shutdowns, and perhaps even help you get reconnected to the Internet.

A secondary objective of these questions is to document the shutdown for further discussion. The more that we can talk about network events during these types of political events the more their impact will become know. Hopefully this will raise awareness of the issue among affected people and tools and service providers, but also among the broader Internet community.


  • Are other people experiencing the same problem? Answering this question will help you understand if the problem is specific to your device or service or whether it may be a shutdown of some sort.

  • Is the issue specific to a website, service, or category of sites or services? It is common for shutdowns to target specific websites used for public coordination or for shutdowns to be specific to categories of websites and services such as instant messaging or social media. Try accessing a variety of websites such as https://google.com, https://whatsapp.com, https://twitter.com and http://honda.com to determine how specific or broad blocks might be. If only some sites or services or blocked, it may be possible to regain access by using Tor or a VPN.

  • Does the problem only affect encrypted services? Some locations may prohibit the use of encrypted Internet services. Try both encrypted websites like https://mozilla.org and unencrypted sites like http://amazon.com to see if the blocking is specific to encrypted services.

  • Is the problem specific to mobile Internet or wifi, broadband and dial-up? It is possible that shutdowns primarily target a certain type of Internet service—e.g. mobile or broadband networks—especially during large public gatherings or demonstrations. Blocking might be inconsistent on different network types at different times, and blocks may stabilize and become more uniform the longer a shutdown continues. If the problem affects only mobile Internet, it may be possible to regain Internet access via wifi; or similarly, to regain access via mobile access if wifi and broadband are unavailable.

  • If there are multiple service providers in your area, does the shutdown affect multiple providers or just one? Sometimes blocking and shutdowns are inconsistent at first. Is the Internet or are specific sites unavailable via multiple providers or just yours? It may be possible to regain access using another provider.

  • If the shutdown affects mobile devices, is only data affected or are you unable to send and receive SMS text messages or place and receive voice phone calls? Mobile data, SMS and voice are related but somewhat independent technologies. Depending on the nature of the shutdown some or all capabilities may be blocked. Also note that some services like WhatsApp or Signal feel like SMS but are in fact dependent on Internet data to function correctly.

Be Prepared:

Below are a few general things you can do to remain connected during an Internet shutdown. None of these tips will work against the most robust of shutdowns, but they can often provide access in some common situations. These are best performed before a shutdown occurs. It may or may not be possible to take these steps while the Internet is not completely available.

  • Tor: Install and get familiar with using the Tor Browser on computers, OrBot, which is a Tor client for Android devices, and OnionBrowser for Apple iOS devices.

  • VPNs: If Tor is not an option for you, install and know how to use a good VPN. Choosing a good VPN can be tricky; however, Psiphon (Android) and Lantern (Windows, OSX and Android) are generally well regarded within the Internet security community.

  • Local WIFI: Know where wifi Internet access is available. Sometimes shutdowns primarily target mobile networks and Internet connectivity via wifi and broadband connections may be possible.

These questions and the recommendations are a work-in-progress. I hope they help you. If you have questions or feedback, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. Thanks!

And many thanks to Carly, Drew, Josh and Nathan for making the time to read this and give me their feedback.

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