This post on the multiple internet outages in Papua in 2021 is the English translation of an article by Asrida Elisabeth, published in Bahasa Indonesia on Remotivi. Since the initial publication of this piece, internet connectivity has been restored in Papua.
On April 30, 2021, shortly before 11 PM, phone and internet networks suddenly went down in Jayapura. The next day, Telkom’s Vice President of Corporate Communication, Pujo Pramono, said broken wires in the Sulawesi Maluku Papua Cable System along the Biak-Sarmi segment had caused the outage.
While phone and SMS networks came back online the same day, it took longer for fixed-line and mobile broadband data services to recover. Unfortunately, it took a month until the internet was fully restored on June 8, 2021. Due to this incident, residents of the City of Jayapura and the Jayapura and Sarmi Regencies could not access the internet the whole time.
Although Telkom claimed that technical reasons caused the outage, Zuzan Griapon, an activist from the Papuan People Front (PRP), believed the incident was set up on purpose. The outage coincided with ongoing discussions on Papua’s special autonomy status. Furthermore, during the internet blackout the Indonesian government had announced its plan to deploy hundreds of military personnel called “Demon Troops” (Pasukan Setan) to Papua’s mountainous regions to eradicate armed civilian groups. Victor Yeimo, spokesperson of the PRP and the National West Papua Committee, was arrested as students were forcibly evicted from their dorms by the Cendrawasih University rectorate.
For Zuzan, internet outages impact the consolidation of movements in responding to these critical incidents. Facing difficulties accessing the internet, he and his peers had to rely on phone calls and face-to-face meetings to coordinate. “We were born as activists in the internet technology era. So when [the blackout happened], we had to build a brand new culture to return”, he said.
The internet blackout affected activists and the general public who rely on internet connectivity. Public services such as schools and hospitals were impacted, and businesses operated at a loss. Since a large number of essential activities moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, several people even had to seek residence in another town to get online, at additional cost. The ones who stayed scoured the city for places where traces of internet connection remain. Such locations became centres of mass gatherings, even as concerns remain over the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
Frequent internet blackouts in Papua
This was not the first or last time that the internet in Papuan regions experienced a blackout. Despite the claim that technical issues were the main cause, internet outages are, in fact, more frequent in Papua. Compared to other parts of Indonesia, it also takes an extended amount of time to restore the connection.
SAFEnet’s report on the Digital Rights Situation in Indonesia recorded 12 internet blackouts throughout 2021, 11 of them in Papua. The other remaining case had a more widespread impact in East Java, Bali, Nusa Tenggara, Natuna Island, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Maluku.
Internet outages often coincide with other political tensions happening in the region. According to SAFEnet, of the blackouts it recorded only four were due to technical reasons, whereas the others were more politically-motivated. For example, four internet outages occurred during the ongoing conflict between armed groups of Papuans and the Indonesian military. Other outages occurred during an arrest involving suspicions of weapon ownership, a military search operation, and several public protests; another occurred during the opening of the 20th National Sports Week held in Papua.
The outages ascribed to technical problems were based on PT Telkom’s statement. The most common technical issue is the breakage of a fibre optic cable. As for the rest of the recorded outages, investigations into what caused these outages came from SAFEnet’s analysis, based on citizen reports.
In an interview on March 22, 2022, Rifki Redha Azizul, public relations officer of Telkomsel for the Maluku-Papua Region, said that internet outages typically occur due to technical issues. The only time it was intentionally shut down was from August until September 2019 at the government’s behest.
“Telkomsel as a telecommunication service provider operator must continually submit to and comply with implementing all the decisions established by the Government”, he said. In his view, Telkomsel cannot be singled out as other operators have done the same.
Rifki was reluctant to answer why technical issues occur more frequently in Papua than in other parts of Indonesia, considering management of the network is the responsibility of Telkomsel’s parent company, PT Telkom. He also refrained from giving more information on the number of users and the compensation scheme for clients negatively impacted by internet outages.
Internet access: a digital right
Obtaining access to the internet is a digital right. The application of digital rights attempts to extend pre-existing, conventional human rights principles to the digital sphere. The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution deeming that the protection of human rights online is just as important as offline.
The scope of a person’s digital rights encompasses many things. Some of the most important are obtaining freedom of access, freedom of expression, right of association and organisation, right to be free from violence and discrimination, and right to security and privacy of personal data.
In this regard, obtaining access to the internet is the most fundamental right, since without it people would not be able to access proper public services and they would be barred from accessing other rights, such as the rights to communicate, associate, and express their views in the digital sphere. Thus, these internet blackouts have significantly violated the digital rights of people in Papua.
EngageMedia’s Digital Rights Report Indonesia (2021) notes three fundamental problems in Indonesia when it comes to freedom of internet access: 1) the presence of a ‘digital divide’; 2) lack of adequate infrastructure; and 3) restriction of access by the state.
The government sought to address the issue of a ‘digital divide’ due to the geographical position and lack of internet infrastructure in Papua by accelerating infrastructure development. Through the Telecommunication and Information Accessibility Agency (Badan Aksesibilitas Telekomunikasi dan Informasi), the government implemented the East Palapa Ring project and constructed several Base Transceiver Station (BTS) towers, with Papua as its focal point. From 2021 to 2022, the government set a target of building BTS towers in as many as 5,204 locations, or 65% of the total number of BTS towers constructed nationally.
As revealed through public statements, the government’s primary purpose behind expanding the internet network is to improve public services, such as health, education, economy, and civil registry, which are beginning to be slowly digitised.
Although the government has zealously declared its intention to shrink the internet infrastructure gap, it has also allowed internet blackouts to keep reoccurring. In several cases, it was even the government that imposed the restrictions. This shows the government’s contradictory behaviour when it comes to fulfilling the digital rights of Papuan citizens. Nevertheless, in terms of infrastructure development and access maintenance, Papua has received disparate treatment. The government has indeed been half-hearted in its attempts to guarantee the digital rights of the people of Papua.
Monitoring internet restrictions
As internet access is an integral part of a person’s rights, it is crucial to monitor the internet restrictions that continue to occur. Internet restrictions could be imposed in various ways. The first is through an internet shutdown: the internet is switched off and connection is severely limited or cut off entirely. The second is internet throttling, in which the network is slowed down by reducing the available bandwidth. The third is internet blocking, which targets specific content or platforms, such as Facebook or WhatsApp.
There is no existing method to bypass an internet shutdown. As for throttling or blocking, internet users could utilise a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service to get around these restrictions. However, under conditions where all networks are affected, using a VPN would be an ineffective solution.
Internet restrictions are now no longer confined to Papua. The latest incident occurred in Wadas, Central Java, in February 2022. A power blackout was compounded by internet throttling at the same time that thousands of security forces made their way into Wadas. It is known that the villagers of Wadas rejected the appearance of a new andesite mine to supply building materials for the Bener dam.
The practice of internet restriction is globally becoming more widespread. Restrictions are usually carried out at the government’s behest, citing national political security reasons. However, the UN has declared these moves a violation of political civil rights. The UN has called upon nations to refrain from shutting down internet networks, including during political unrest.
Monitoring internet restrictions could be done independently by citizens in collaboration with digital rights organisations. In the event of outages, the first thing that citizens should do is note the time and location of the outage.
Unggul Sagena, Head of SAFEnet’s Internet Division, remarked that citizens could use several applications when an outage occurs, such as OONI Probe, Speedtest.org, and IODA (Internet Outage Detection and Analysis). Screenshots from these three applications could be used to confirm the situation with responsible parties, such as the government or internet service providers.
Only individuals located in the affected site during or after the internet outage can perform network inspection using OONI Probe and Speedtest.org. Through the IODA dashboard at https://ioda.caida.org, citizens could monitor and analyse any internet blackouts that occur.
Those affected must also note any critical incidents in their location that coincided with the outage. According to Unggul, prolonged outages may not be caused by technical issues alone, but may also be due to specific incidents at the site of the outage.
“We would analyse how long [the outage lasts]. It shouldn’t last for hours if it were only [caused by] technical issues from the [internet service provider] or operator side due to reparations. If it goes on for hours, we must check what happened, what incident [may have occurred]”, he said.
As a digital rights organisation, SAFEnet has performed online monitoring through the social media platforms Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, as well as online media. Monitoring is performed daily using relevant keywords such as ‘lemot’ (lagging), ‘lelet’ (slow), ‘tidak bisa akses’ (no access). SAFEnet also provides a public complaint filing system for those who experience internet outages.
It is hoped that the results of monitoring done by citizens and civil society organisations could be used to motivate the government and internet service providers to fulfil people’s rights to internet access, especially in regions prone to frequent outages like Papua.
This article is part of a collaboration between Remotivi and EngageMedia to publish a series of articles on digital rights in Indonesia.