Late last week, news broke that following several self-immolations among Tibetan Buddhist and clashes of violence against protesters demanding Tibetan autonomy, China has cutoff Internet connectivity and mobile phone signals for 30 miles around the main clashes taking place in Sichuan province. Last resort techniques like these are unfortunately not new. Even prior to the most famous case of unplugging the Internet, China cut off internet access and limited mobile services in the Xinjiang region in 2009 for several months as a response to outbreaks of violence. But while key officials under the Mukarak regime have been punished in their pocketbooks, the ability and desire of repressive regimes to deploy internet outages as a means to eliminate dissidence presents yet another hurdle in attempts to ensure democracy and transparency worldwide. During volatile political moments, it becomes challenging to verify information on current events. Currently, foreign journalists are prohibited from entering affected Tibetan areas, making it extremely difficult to verify reports about the current situation. Adding to the complexity of obtaining verifiable information are the “human elements”, where concerns about the threatened safety of involved persons can add a panic-induced frenzy and desperation for accurate information.
At NDI, we are not immune to facing these obstacles in our work. In many of our political process monitoring projects, we aggregate the reports from trained observers, but also incorporate reports that have been received but have not yet been verified, to allow this information to be shared but make it clear that further confirmation on its accuracy is needed. Efforts from regimes to unplug their citizenry from the global internet are intolerable, but increasingly NDI is recognizing that this now becoming a more likely possibility that needs to be addressed in democracy programs.