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Iraq Orders Internet Blackout To Quell Protests

As southern Iraq reels from snowballing protests that threaten oil facilities at a critical political weak point, the outgoing prime minister is taking dangerous measures to stop them, including aggressive use of security forces and cutting internet access that could cost the country $40 million a day. 

The Iraqi central government has imposed a full internet shutdown across the southern provinces of Iraq, including Baghdad and oil-rich Basra in an attempt to prevent a further escalation of protests, and to make it more difficult for protest organizers to communicate. They’ve also blocked social media networks in the northern territory controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Mobile applications which have messaging features like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat also have been blocked.

It’s an expensive move, in more than one way.

NetBlocks.org, an internet shutdown observatory, says that this attack on the internet by the authorities could add up to losses of $40 million per day because the blackouts are affecting businesses that rely on social media for marketing and sales.

Blocking the internet, or specific social media apps, is becoming a commonplace knee-jerk reaction for the Iraqi authorities. They’ve already tested it out on school children during test time to prevent cheating by requiring all ISPs, including mobile 3G providers, to black out service for three hours per day during exam weeks.

But it’s also been used before as a security measures. It imposed blackouts in Mosul when ISIS occupied the city, and it did the same when it was having a pricing dispute with telecommunications companies in 2013.  

Related: U.S. Poised To Ease Biofuel Quotas

All told, one study says that the Iraqi government ordered 22 internet outages just in 2016. The same study says those outages, combined, cost the country over $200 million in lost economic growth.

No blackout undertaken by the Iraqi government, however, has been as intrusive as this one. This is not about ISIS, or pricing—or potentially cheating students. This is out masses of protesters who have valid grievances. They are protesting the fact that the massive oil wealth of the Basra region isn’t trickling down to the people—to the point that there is even a lack of potable water. They are also protesting the proportion of jobs handed in the oil industry to locals as opposed to foreigners.

The official unemployment rate in Iraq is 10.8 percent, but the bigger problem is that the unemployment rate for Iraq’s large youth population is double that. Nearly 59 percent of Iraq's population is under the age of 25.

Despite living in the heart of the oil industry, which accounts for 95 percent of export, residents of Basra and Iraq’s south are some of the country’s poorest. Out of some 200,000 people are employed in energy sector, 25 percent are from outside Basra, including foreigners. Protesters are demanding them to be replaced.

Even if oil production has not been impacted yet, operations at several oil fields have been affected by security concerns and international oil companies have temporarily withdrawn staff from some areas that saw protests. Related: Chinese Oil Demand Growth Could Slow Down Soon

As protests enter their second week and show no sign of abating, blocking the internet may hinder communications, but it will also further enrage and already engage citizenry.

Politically, this is a critical time for Iraq, which is struggling to form a new coalition government following May general elections. Now, the unrest adds more pressure to this process and cutting off businesses that could end up taking $40 million a day out of Iraq’s economic growth will only worsen the situation.

By Damir Kaletovic for Safehaven.com

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