Bahrain Internet Shutdown Hits One Year Mark, Longest in Region’s History

Shutdown Ratcheted Up During Attack on Duraz Verified

As of 7pm tonight, Bahrain has shut down the internet in the village of Duraz every day for 365 days. This makes it one of the longest sustained internet shutdowns in the world.

Since 23 June 2016, residents of Duraz have been reporting regular disruptions to internet services within the village. The complaints we received included mobile users with internet services provided by Batelco, Viva and Zain, the main ISP’s in the country. An investigation by Bahrain Watch published in August 2016 found that ISP’s were deliberately disrupting both fixed-line and mobile data services in the village between 7PM and 1AM everyday.

Our research revealed the presence of a device on Batelco’s Internet backbone that disrupts certain Internet traffic to and from Duraz between 7PM and 1AM, while leaving other traffic undisrupted. We concluded that it is possible that the disruptions were a result of a Service Restriction Order (SRO) from the Bahrain Government.

The disruption was part of the systematic security siege of the village following protests that began on 20 June 2016 after the government revoked the nationality of prominent Shia cleric Sh. Isa Qassim. Protesters remained on the streets outside his home for almost one year until the Ministry of Interior (MoI) led an armed operation on 23 May 2017 to disperse the protests.

We have verified that the internet disruption has been carried out every day since 23 June 2016, marking one year of nightly internet disruptions.

Bahrain Increased the Duration of the Internet Shutdown During Duraz Attack

We carried out new research over recent weeks in response to fresh claims by residents on the ground of a more prolonged shutdown. We have identified that there was a shift in the timing of the shutdown beginning on 23 May 2017, when the MoI led an armed operation against protesters in the village. On the day, security forces under the command of the MoI stormed the village in order to disband protests. The attack led to the death of at least 5 individuals, with local NGO’s accusing the police of excessive use of force.

Although coverage of the attack was initially disseminated in real time on social media and instant messaging applications during the start of the attack, the news quickly went silent with a team on the ground later reporting that they were unable to access the internet. During the week after the raid on Duraz, we verified that the disruption to mobile phone networks in the area occurred outside of the normal hours of 7PM and 1AM.

On June 1, for instance, our readings show a disruption to mobile data services on Zain’s network in Duraz that begins as early as 2:30PM. The disruption to 2G, 3G, and 4G mobile data services occurs using the same mechanism as we documented in our previous investigation. 2G cells broadcast notifications to handsets indicating that while voice calls and SMS are still possible mobile data services are not supported (“Service Information 4” messages with the “GPRS Indicator” bit unset). At the same time, handsets stop receiving messages from Zain’s 3G and 4G cells, indicating that these networks may be entirely shut down in the area.

Tracking the Costs of the Shutdown

The population in Duraz has been estimated at approximately twenty thousand and Bahrain’s mobile data penetration has been estimated at 115%. We have been tracking the costs of the shutdown to residents since 23 June 2016. Despite the nightly shutdown, ISP’s have forced residents to pay their internet subscription costs in full without compensation or provision of a remedy. Many subscribers who attempted to end their contracts were threatened with steep cancellation fees and paying the costs of their subscriptions in full.

Today, we estimate that the shutdown has costs residents over $845000 in mobile and fixed-line subscriptions without access to the internet. This is a conservative estimate, and we expect the total cost of the shutdown on the wider economy to be much higher.

Bill Marczak, Co-Founder and Director at Bahrain Watch said,

"We live in an era where the internet is vital to modern living standards. Internet access is a right and not a privilege. In this case the shutdown has been used as part of a siege to prevent expression and as a form of collective punishment."

Deji Olukotun, Senior Global Advocacy Manager at Access Now said,

"The internet shutdown in Bahrain harms human rights and the local economy," said Deji Bryce Olukotun, Senior Global Advocacy Manager at Access Now. "This sneaky new form of digital curfew may be disguised as a harmless disruption, but it has severe impacts upon freedom of expression and innovation. The government should immediately lift the shutdown and make the shutdown order public. The telcos have an obligation to respect human rights and should, at a minimum, be transparent about their actions and compensate the victims for their lost services."

Bahrain Watch is a member of the #KeepItOn coalition fighting against internet shutdowns across the world. Internet shutdowns pose a serious threat to human rights. They harm everyone: businesses, emergency services, journalism, human rights defenders, and demonstrators. The #KeepitOn campaign has succeeded in pressuring the U.N. Human Rights Council to “unequivocally condemn” internet shutdowns and 30 governments of the Freedom Online Coalition also criticized internet shutdowns in a detailed statement.