Iraq online shutdown cost ‘$40m a day’

Iraqi security forces deploy on Tuesday. (AFP)
Updated 18 July 2018
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Iraq online shutdown cost ‘$40m a day’

  • The banking sector, airlines, businesses and mobile phone companies faced severe disruptions
  • Internet partially restored but social media sites remain blocked

BAGHDAD: An Iraqi government ban on online access to curb growing protests is costing the country tens of millions of dollars a day and ramping up anger toward the authorities.

Internet access was blocked in much of Iraq from Friday as protests in southern provinces spread from the main oil hub of Basra. 

The government hopes to limit communication between thousands of demonstrators protesting at a lack of basic services and official corruption. The tactic is similar to that used by regimes during Arab Spring protests in 2011.

On Monday, the government partially reactivated Internet services, but kept restrictions on prominent social media platforms, including WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.

The banking sector, airlines, businesses and mobile phone companies faced severe disruptions because of the shutdown, online experts said. 

The restrictions left hundreds of international and local media outlets paralyzed, banking transactions all but halted, and airlines facing flight cancelations and passenger chaos for at least three days.

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READ MORE: How political forces fueled the spread of Iraq protests

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Government departments relying on the Internet, including security services, and those dealing with residency, passports and intelligence were disrupted, security officials told Arab News.

A study by NetBlocks, an independent group monitoring online shutdowns, suggested that the restrictions could cost Iraq’s struggling economy $40 million per day in “lost business, sales and opportunities.”

“The Iraqi government has made a big mistake. A lot of business transactions are conducted via the Internet,” Bassim Antwan, an Iraqi economic expert, said.

“The blocking of sites… has caused great losses (for Iraq). While the government believes that it has succeeded in something, it has lost much of its revenues and the revenues of the private sector.”

Massive demonstrations engulfed Iraq’s southern provinces in protest at electricity cuts, a shortage of drinking water, and the high rates of unemployment and poverty. Protests began in Basra on July 8 with the blocking of roads to the oil fields.

Iraqi security forces were placed on high alert after public facilities, including local government buildings, Najaf airport and oil sites were stormed by demonstrators.

The block on social media sites has prompted Iraqis to sign up to applications and programs that use VPNs to break the ban.

Iraq’s government has previously used Internet restrictions as part of security measures to prevent protests. It has also resorted to the tactic to prevent students from circulating exam questions and to reduce the circulation of security information.

But the latest block is the longest and most comprehensive of the past decade. 

Most Iraqis view the shutdown as an attempt to suppress the protests and avoid scrutiny of the security services’ response.

Ahmed Saadawi, an internationally renowned Iraqi novelist, said he was using a proxy Internet server to avoid the ban and communicate with those outside Iraq.

“We are imprisoned because of government measures that have blocked social media sites, disrupted people’s interests, deprived protesters of the right to express opinions, and denied others the right to get information,” Saadawi wrote on hisFacebook page.

“I condemned the arbitrary measures being taken by the corrupt parties that want to continue to share power and profits without any objection to their work.”

Eight people have been killed and hundreds wounded in demonstrations which entered their 10th day on Tuesday.

Major campaigns were launched by security services in the past three days to arrest the organizers, advocates and journalists in Baghdad and the south “on charges of inciting people to sabotage the public institutions,” lawyers and security officials said. 

Dozens of Iraqis who live abroad and in unaffected provinces have shared instructions on how to break the social media block and use applications to publish news, pictures and videos of the demonstrations.

Iraqis have also resorted to their well-tested humor in times of crisis by poking fun at the authorities.

“Thanks to the government Internet ban, I found out that my kid’s age is 6 not 4,” Hisham Ali wrote on Facebook. “Not just this, I found out that my family members are nice people and can be tolerated. I am happy.”


Treasury Secretary: US ‘could not be happier’ with Bahrain outcome

Updated 39 min 13 sec ago
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Treasury Secretary: US ‘could not be happier’ with Bahrain outcome

  • Mnuchin confident of raising the first $4 billion soon

MANAMA: Jared Kushner’s “workshop” aimed at securing economic prosperity for Palestine closed with optimistic forecasts from President Donald Trump’s special adviser that it could be the basis for a forthcoming political deal with Israel.

Kushner told journalists at a post-event briefing: “I think that people are all leaving very energized, very pleasantly surprised at how many like-minded people they see. It is a solvable problem economically, and the reason why we thought it was important to lay out the economic vision before we lay out the political vision is because we feel we need people to see what the future can look like.

“The Palestinian people have been promised a lot of things over the years that have not come true. We want to show them that this is the plan, this is what can happen if there is a peace deal.”

The next stage, before a political deal is attempted, will be to get feedback from the event and agree to commitments for the $50 billion package for Palestine and other regional economies.

“I think you need $50 billion to really do this the right way, to get a paradigm shift,” Kushner added.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said: “I could not be happier how this has gone,” adding that he was “highly confident we will soon have the first $4 billion. It’s going to be like a hot initial public offering.”

Most of the attendees at the event in Manama, Bahrain, gave Kushner’s economic proposals a serious hearing and agreed it was a useful exercise. Mohammed Al-Shaikh, Saudi minister of state, said: “Can it be done? Yes it can, because it was done before. In the mid-1990s to about the year 2000 there was a global coordinated effort by the US and other countries. I was at the World Bank at the time. I saw it. If we could do it then with significantly less money we can do it again.”

Others warned, however, that there was still a long way to go on the political aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and Middle East peace envoy, said a political deal was essential.

“This is an economic plan that, if it is implemented, is going to do enormous good for the Palestinian people. But it isn’t a substitute for the politics. There will be no economic peace. There will be a peace that will be a political component and an economic component. The economy can help the politics and the politics is necessary for the economy to flourish.

“The politics has got to be right in this sense as well. The obvious sense people talk about is how do you negotiate the contours of the boundaries of a Palestinian state in a two state solution,” Blair said.

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, highlighted the work the fund has done in conflict situations. “We had an exceptional result in Rwanda, and a good economic outcome in Mozambique,” she said. But she contrasted this with disappointing results in other African conflicts.

Lagarde said that the aim of the economic plan should be to create jobs. “The focus should be on job-intensive industries, like agriculture, tourism and infrastructure.”

Willem Buiter, special economic adviser to US banking giant Citi, said there were obstacles to the Kushner plan succeeding. “Necessary conditions for any progress are peace, safety and security. And there must be high-quality governance and the rule of law in Palestine,” he said.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Jared Kushner believes the conflict is a ‘solvable problem economically.’

• The senior adviser vows to lay out political plans at the right time.

• Expert urges external funding in the form of grants or equity, rather than loans.

He also suggested external funding should be in the form of grants or equity, rather than loans. “We should not burden a country trying to escape from its past with high debts,” he added.

Some attendees warned of the risks to investor funds in the current political situation in the Middle East. 

But Khalid Al-Rumaihi, chief executive of the Bahrain Economic Development Board, said: “Risk is not new to the region. We’ve tackled it for the past 30 to 40 years, but that has not stopped investment flowing in.

“Investors trade risk for return, and the Middle East has learned to cope with risk and conflict. There are pockets where the risk is high and Palestine is one of them. But I remain positive. The return in the region is higher to compensate for the risk,” he added.

At a session of regional finance ministers, Mohammed Al-Jadaan of Saudi Arabia said: “The region is in desperate need of prosperity and hope. There is a way forward, but you need political commitment.”

UAE Finance Minister Obaid Al-Tayer added: “We are decoupling politics from economics. If it’s the only initiative on the table we should all give it a chance.”