“There is no way to find out what’s going on in the streets of the capital where protests erupted a few days earlier. You knock on your neighbour’s door and ask if they know what is happening, have they gotten any news? They can’t get online either. You realise that the internet is not down, it has been shut down all across the country. No one will be able to see or hear what’s happening as they start cracking down on the protesters, brutalising them with batons and maybe even using live ammunition this time. The government has flipped the kill switch.”
Kill Switch, hosted by Felicia Anthonio, is a production of Access Now, Volume and the #KeepItOn Coalition. This 6-part podcast series documents a global threat to democracy: government-mediated internet shutdowns. According to Access Now, there were at least 213 internet shutdowns, over 33 countries, in 2019 alone.
Throughout the series, we hear from journalists, activists and experts exploring the intersection between internet shutdowns and human rights violations. Shutdowns are clearly a threat to freedom of expression, with many introduced following anti-government protests.
Governments often claim that cutting internet access is in the interests of national security. But is forcing suppliers to turn off your internet legal? In Episode 2, we hear stories from Sudan, Indonesia and Cameroon, where lawyers and activists have launched successful legal battles to get internet access restored.
People across the globe are living with the threat of internet shutdowns, slow-downs and social media blocks, so I like that Kill Switch includes practical advice. Episode 4 gives a deep dive into the tech you need to circumvent a shutdown. I found the advice useful even though I don’t consider myself to be at risk (I switched my VPN after listening).
Episode 3, ‘Everyday Life Under a Shutdown’, is the highlight of the series for me. We hear from several people refusing to be silenced by internet shutdowns. My favourite interview is with Mambe Churchill Nanje, a startup founder based in Cameroon’s ‘Silicon Mountain’, who documents the shutdown’s effects on his life and business.
Anthonio also looks at the effects of shutdowns on education and healthcare. In the time of the coronavirus pandemic, shutdowns have prevented access to public health information – for both doctors and patients – and prevented rural patients from accessing telemedicine.
Something I think is quite unique to this podcast is the powerful scene-setting at the beginning of each episode. This is from the start of the fifth episode:
“The internet shutdown is not about you. It’s not targeted at you. The internet shutdown is really about the protesters. Amidst the cloud of teargas in the streets, retreating from a volley of stinging rubber bullets, are the real targets of the shutdown… and they can’t document or report on how the security forces are switching from rubber bullets to live ammunition. They can’t tell the world they’re about to be slaughtered. And they can’t ask for help.”
Anthonio shows that internet shutdowns have preceded human rights violations by police and armed forces. Without internet, violations are difficult to track and report. In this episode, we learn about extrajudicial killings in Ethiopia, where shutdowns interfered with evidence gathering and prevented human rights workers from intervening.
Kill Switch is very well produced. Anthonio speaks to people from all over the world, some who are in areas with communications blackouts, and the audio is clear. I like the sound design – Kill Switch sounds like a podcast about the internet without using over-the-top or distracting effects. If I have one tiny criticism of this podcast, it’s that the script sounds more like it was written for print than for audio. But I’m nitpicking.
I’ve listened to a few podcasts about the internet this year and Kill Switch is my favourite by far. Felicia Anthonio is a brilliant host. This podcast includes a great range of voices and goes far beyond the usual ‘freedom of speech’ argument for internet rights, showing the far reaching consequences of internet shutdowns.