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Iraq had world's largest number of internet shutdowns in 2023 due to exam cheating

Shutdowns in Iran, Iraq and Algeria cost countries over $1 bn in economic activity with the vast majority of that in Iran
Iraqi school girls attend a class on the first day of the school year in Baghdad on 12 October 2022 (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP)

Middle Eastern countries lost more than a billion dollars through internet shutdowns in 2023 with Iraq topping the list of the most shutdowns that year, according to a new report.

Research by independent VPN review site Top10VPN shows Iraq had 66 internet shutdowns in 2023, most of which were imposed during school exams to prevent cheating by students.

Iran alone, meanwhile, lost almost $1bn as a result of the shutdowns, which mainly targeted anti-government protesters.

Algeria, Yemen, Sudan, Syria and Turkey were also among the most frequent users of internet shutdowns in 2023.

Internet shutdowns for exams, nominally to prevent cheating by students, have been very controversial in past, with digital rights campaigners branding them a human rights violation.

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Iraq has regularly imposed restrictions on internet usage during exams for years, despite criticism both inside and outside the country.

Digital rights group AccessNow, which co-sponsored a campaign under the hashtags #NoExamShutdown and #KeepItOn in 2023, has described the shutdowns as a violation of "international human rights law and standards" and said it caused "essential online services [to] come to a complete standstill".

In May, the Iraqi Ministry of Communication said it had rejected a request from the Ministry of Education to impose an internet shutdown.

Despite this, however, internet monitoring groups noted a shutdown the next month during exam time.

Protest crackdowns

Aside from the controversy over school exams, internet shutdowns were also imposed in a number of countries in 2023 to stymie anti-government protests.

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Iran was still reeling in 2023 from demonstrations over the death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman who died after being arrested in September 2022 by the country's morality police over "inappropriate hijab".

More than 500 people were killed by security forces during the protests that followed the 22-year-old Amini's death, with hundreds more arrested, tortured and executed.

According to Top10VPN, social media outlets in Iran were shut down for 12,624 hours in 2023 alone, which had "an economic impact of over $907 million".

The Iranian government has also spent time attacking and dismantling VPNs in order to prevent access to foreign websites.

Many businessmen and tech workers in Iran have warned for years about the economic impact of the repeated shutdowns, and have pointed to increasing numbers of young Iranians migrating over fears they have no future in the tech industry as a result of the restrictions.

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