Skip to Content

Cybersecurity & Standards

Splintercon Brussels Brings Technologists and Activists Together to Confront How to Stay Connected in the Midst of a Complete Internet Shutdown

Last week a bunch of internet technologists and social movement activists went to Brussels and shut down the internet. Well, not the ACTUAL internet, but a local simulation of the internet. This “blockathon” was a technical demonstration of what the network looks like to engineers when there is no network. Those in attendance were then encouraged to try to break out of the shut-down network while at the same time discussing the privacy and ethics of building such a censorship test-bed in the first place.

In the U.S, the EU and countries like South Korea, Japan and Australia, network outages usually happen when a natural disaster knocks out the grid (or a backhoe, as has happened so many times). In places like Iran and China, network outages may be engineered by the government itself. Regardless, losing the internet means losing so much of modern life. You probably don’t have to imagine what it feels like to lose contact with family, friends and first responders in a storm. For many citizens of the globe, social isolation via digital restriction may be government policy.

The internet blockathon was held on the final day of Splintercon Brussels, an event that brings together network researchers, software developers, internet freedom advocates and those most affected by large-scale censorship. The goal? To better understand and confront the reality that a growing number of communities face: how to stay connected in the midst of a complete internet shutdown.

The inaugural Splintercon took place last December in Montreal, where three days of talks, workshops and hackathon projects dealt with the effects of Russia’s war on Ukraine for activists on the ground. The session also covered broader internet censorship issues. As part of my role at CDT and as a member of the hosting organization eQualitie’s board, I delivered a keynote on why and how internet standards development must design for censorship and include ways to circumvent it. 

The second Splintercon took place in Brussels this month and looks at the specific case of the Iranian internet and censorship. It’s being co-hosted with the Canadian NGO ASL19, and talks and participants have been curated by the programme committee, of which I am a member. Note that these sessions focus on the digital networks themselves, not on shutdowns and other censorship of apps like Facebook or Instagram. Losing access to a common communications app is bad enough; losing access to ALL internet applications, from email to the web, is far worse.

These sessions highlight the importance of having backup systems and resilient networks that can survive even when the power grid comes crashing down, at least long enough for people to get in touch with loved ones or emergency medical services. When a government shuts down the internet, though, normal network redundancies won’t be enough, since they’ll likely be shut down, too. Splintercon and events like it help network engineers and the broader anti-censorship movement understand the issues involved and how we might get around them. I’m proud to play a role in this important conversation.