False flags and internet censorship: A cautionary tale

The Internet went down in Mauritius -- and you should be afraid.

Homes, businesses, and even mobile/wireless users were unable to access much of the online world on Monday thanks to what government IT managers are calling an "external cyberattack from multiple locations."

Without providing any evidence, the Information and Communications Technology Authority (ICTA), which oversees the telecom infrastructure on the island, pointed to "outside forces" while ratcheting up its rhetoric about needing to monitor all Internet traffic to and from the island in order to counter "hateful, defamatory and sectarian comments on social media."

Using a crisis to justify a crackdown is a tactic straight out of the totalitarian playbook. We’ve seen similar attempts at broad-based, government monitoring and censorship in backwaters, like Kazakhstan, as well as through private entities (Facebook, Twitter) in supposedly "free" nations, like the United States.

Mauritius, however, is a special case. A one-time liberal democracy with a handful of socialized institutions (e.g. healthcare), the island nation has been slipping slowly but surely into a state of quasi-authoritarianism for some time now, with outgoing political leaders jailed and opposition party members harassed and intimidated.

Now the government is using this latest "attack" to bolster its arguments for the creation of a kind of "great firewall of Mauritius" that will help squelch the "bad" voices that threaten the increasingly unpopular regime’s stability.

All of which begs the question: Was it really an outside job? The failure by the ICTA to offer any evidence of the supposed cyberattack leaves many on the island wondering if this wasn’t a false flag operation to gin-up support for its drastic new censorship program.

It’s worth noting that the Mauritian Internet is fairly robust, with multiple, redundant connections to the world via at least three different undersea fiber optic trunks. Hackers would need intimate knowledge of the local telecom infrastructure, as well as privileged access to key routers and servers, to bring all traffic across every network to a standstill. Yet that’s exactly what we’re supposed to believe happened for nearly 5 hours on July 19 -- and that the only way to counter such attacks in the future is through direct government control over every bit of data flowing through those connections.

"You never let a serious crisis go to waste." Chilling words from the chief architect (Rahm Emanuel) of the Clinton political machine in the United States. It seems the Mauritian government has learned a few tricks from the prototypical liberal democracy, and it will soon be leveraging the the "great cyberattack of 7/19/21" to foist a web of censorship and speech suppression upon its people.

And if it can happen here, where the principles of public rule and political transparency once reigned supreme, it can happen anywhere. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Photo Credit: kurhan/Shutterstock

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