For nearly a decade, Iraq has experienced periodic internet shutdowns as a means to address pressing security concerns, bureaucratic needs and to curb cheating on official exams. While these shutdowns are used to address the government’s immediate concerns, they raise significant issues related to the rights to freedom of expression and association, as well as access to information. They also severely impact the economy and trust in government. The use of internet shutdowns reflects the Iraqi government’s lack of strategic thinking in the digital age. 

Understanding Internet Shutdowns in Iraq

In Iraq, internet shutdowns are enacted during times of social unrest, such as protests or when the government perceives a need to maintain national security. This approach was most notably used during the October 2019 protests, where the internet was shut down to manage and suppress public dissent and limit the organisation and mobilisation that can be facilitated through social media and other online platforms. 

In addition, since at least 2015 the Iraqi government has routinely shut down internet access nationwide during high school examination periods. On exam days, the government cuts off internet access for at least three hours each morning, affecting daily life nationwide for a substantial number of days every year. In May 2023, the Council of Ministers voted to shut down the internet for 4 hours on exam days, and it is expected that will be implemented in May and June 2024. 

Internet shutdowns during exam periods are implemented as a preventive strategy to curb cheating and uphold the integrity of the examination process. By shutting down the internet, authorities aim to prevent exam questions from being leaked and distributed online before the exams. However, despite internet shutdowns, exam questions continue to be leaked, and cheating happens. 

Notably, Iraq is not the only country that practices internet shutdowns during exam periods. Similar practices were used in Algeria, Jordan, Sudan, and Syria. 

Economic costs of internet shutdowns

The economic implications of internet shutdowns in Iraq are significant, especially for businesses that depend heavily on continuous online connectivity. E-commerce ventures, which rely on the Internet for all aspects of their operations—from sales and customer service to logistics and management—face substantial disruptions and financial losses during these periods. This not only directly impacts business owners but also has a broader ripple effect across the economy. 

Data from the Internet Society’s Netloss Calculator underscores estimates that a single day of internet shutdown in Iraq results in a loss of approximately $1.4 million USD.

Furthermore, international companies and investors who rely on stable and predictable internet services for their operations may view the frequent disruptions as a risk factor, potentially leading to decreased trust and hesitancy to engage with or invest in the country. This can deter foreign investment and slow down technological and economic development, further isolating Iraq from international business opportunities and hindering its growth in the global digital economy.

What is more, internet shutdowns disproportionately impact women. In Iraq many women are limited in their access to public space and often face harassment and discrimination in male-dominated work places. As a result, many women entrepreneurs have increasingly turned to online businesses selling homemade goods via social media platforms. Internet shutdowns also mean that they are frequently denied their only source of independent income. 

Human Rights & Trust in Government 

The repeated internet disruptions in Iraq also impact human rights. Regular interruptions to internet services infringe on digital rights, hindering daily communications and activities. These disruptions restrict access to information and communication, essential tools for of modern life, hampering social and professional interactions and raising significant concerns about freedom of expression and assembly, as well as the right to information.

Internet access is a fundamental human right as codified in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which upholds the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers. Internet shutdowns also limits Iraqis’ right to peaceful assembly and association, as codified in article 19 of the UDHR. 

In addition, the recurring use of internet shutdowns in Iraq compromises public trust in government. For example, in relation to shutdowns during the exam period, the government’s inability to prevent cheating without resorting to such stark measures erodes public trust in government capabilities. This leads to broader scepticism about the government’s ability to handle challenges efficiently and transparently, as the public perceives these measures as heavy-handed and ultimately futile.

Strategic Solutions 

To mitigate the adverse effects of internet shutdowns in Iraq, it is crucial for authorities to reassess the proportionality of these measures. This involves critically evaluating whether the extent and duration of the shutdowns align with their intended objectives. Authorities must consider whether these disruptions are the least intrusive means available and explore alternative strategies that cause less disruption while still protecting essential services and rights. 

There is also a critical need for research into the legality and constitutionality of internet shutdowns in Iraq, especially in light of the country’s limited cyber laws and obligations under international law. Such research is essential to determining whether current practices are defensible and align with both national and international standards. Additionally, it could explore the potential for legal challenges within Iraqi courts, such as the Federal Supreme Court, utilising frameworks like the UDHR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

International and local organisations started to campaign against internet shutdowns in various countries, utilising the hashtag #NoExamShutdown.

To address exam cheating and reduce the need for internet shutdowns, the Ministry of Education should: 1) decentralise the process of preparing exam questions by allowing different education departments to write their own questions; 2) store sensitive information in secure locations with limited access and use monitoring technologies such as CCTV cameras, to make sure that leaks and security breaches can be traced; 3) using temporary internet disrupters in exam halls to disconnect devices from the internet during exams. 

What is more, when addressing cheating on during the exams period, the authorities must engage with international best practices in relation to developing a secure digital infrastructure. In this way, Iraq will be able to enhance its own cybersecurity measures and examination protocols, ensuring more robust defense against cheating while respecting its citizens’ digital rights and needs. 

You can find the original blog in English here. It is also available in Arabic here.