Authoritarian Practices in the Digital Age| Blocking the Bottleneck: Internet Shutdowns and Ownership at Election Times in Sub-Saharan Africa
The Internet is often portrayed as offering new communication and information channels resistant to state control because of its decentralization. At the same time, the Internet relies on a hierarchical physical infrastructure that, connecting the individual customer to the Internet, provides states with control opportunities. We argue that ownership of the Internet infrastructure, in particular Internet service providers (ISPs), is critical to understanding state Internet control because most direct forms of control require ISPs to comply with government requests. Using qualitative comparative analysis, we systematically link documented Internet shutdowns in sub-Sahara African countries to configurations of ISP state majority ownership, regime type, and election violence. The results support a positive relationship between a temporary halt of Internet provision and ISP majority ownership by authoritarian states when facing election-related violence. Our study underlines the importance of varying ownership structures in explaining political effects of Internet penetration, including its role in challenging authoritarian rule.