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Cutting the Cord: Impacts of Internet Outages on Democracy

Sun, September 1, 8:00 to 9:30am, Hilton, Embassy

Abstract

Does access to better information and communications technology (ICT) increase democratic participation by making collective action easier or does it aid autocrats in monitoring, censoring and controlling its users? Observational studies answering this question face the problem that autocrats can control the advancement and spread of technology within their country, making causal inference on this topic difficult if not impossible. Using a natural experiment of accidental Internet failures between 2008 and 2018, I argue that access to the Internet does have a positive effect on protests and other forms of democratic engagement. These outages are the result of breaks in the submarine cables that carry over 95% of international Internet and telephone traffic around the world. In the United States, Canada, and Europe, most of the content we access online is domestic, retrieved from large server farms in our own countries. Users in Africa and Southeast Asia, however, access mosts sites via cables that run along the ocean floor about as wide as a soda can. Although small, such cables have been the backbone of global communications since the mid-1800s when the first telegraphs came into use. Today, submarine cables are optical fiber sheathed in protective layers of aluminum, copper, polycarbonate, and steel cabling, but they can break. Significant weather events over the ocean and earthquakes can sever them as can fishing trawlers, ship anchors, and even shark bites. In a smaller number of cases, thieves have been known to dive down and take portions to sell. While a break in a cable will be unnoticeable to users in the U.S., which is connected to nearly half of the world’s cables, or Europe, which is also well connected, such breaks can cause huge problems in countries that are connected to only a few cables. While repair work is underway, which normally takes about two weeks, the effected countries see large decreases in Internet speed as traffic is moved to other cables if they are available and to satellites, which take much longer to access information and are much more expensive.

Using news reports from the last decade, I have compiled a dataset of over 200 different cable breaks that impacted over 30 different countries, recording the exact date of the break and the repair. I use this dataset, and three different daily event datasets to show that protests and other types of democratic involvement decrease while the Internet is slower or not available at all. I also control for average temperature in each country and the daily exchange rate of the dominant currency to the U.S. dollar as a rough measure of possible economic grievances. This project offers a novel natural experiment to address the relationship between democracy and advancement in ICTs. It also contributes to democratization literature by looking at changes in democratic involvement between days, a unit of time that is not widely used in political science. Monthly and yearly data is necessary for understanding macroscopic changes in democratization and the effect of large events or programs, but by focusing on the day I show how individuals and groups change their amount of involvement in small increments in response to exogenous events. This allows for a better understanding of the building blocks that lead to larger changes in levels of democracy over time.

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