Earlier this morning, the national fiber backbone of Iraq was taken offline in an effort to combat cheating on 6th grade placement exams. It was the fourth such outage in the past five days. 2017 marks the third year Iraq has used government-directed internet blackouts to combat cheating on student exams.
These recent outages are a continuation of a growing (and somewhat puzzling) trend by governments in many developing parts of the world to cut communications services in a desperate attempt to staunch rampant cheating on high-stakes student exams.
In the summer of 2015, we broke the story of periodic early-morning outages of the national backbone of Iraq’s internet. These were the first such government-directed national internet outages to combat cheating on exams and were subsequently covered by publications such as Ars Technica and The Daily Beast.
Text msg sent to all Iraqi mobile users: At direction of govt to all ISPs, internet will be disconnected 6-9am every day 1-8 Oct pic.twitter.com/zouxSoY7TU
— Dyn Research (@DynResearch) October 3, 2016
Why does this happen?
After the first round of outages in Iraq last year, The Atlantic magazine wrote an excellent piece about the phenomenon, in which I was quoted saying:
It isn’t hyperbole to say that the government of Iraq faces multiple immediate existential threats — placement exams aren’t on that list, I would think.
I wasn’t alone in trying to get my mind around shutting the country down to fight cheating, but according to our sources in Iraq, here is the explanation for these exam-related shutdowns.
Within public education in Iraq, if students don’t score high enough on their 6th grade placement exams, then their public education is over and an already difficult future may have just been made more so. This makes the exams extremely important to the future of Iraqi students, so much so that parents will sometimes go to great lengths to get a leg up on the competition so that their kid’s education will continue.
The duration of the internet outages covers the period of time of the physical distribution of the exam materials to testing centers. This typically begins at 5am on exam day – the exams begin later at 8am, at which time mobile service is cut for three hours. In the past, once the exam distribution started around the country, images of the questions from the exams would begin appearing in social media – along with the answers.
By the time students were sitting for their exams, many students had already memorized answers to the questions, thus compromising the exams. As was pointed out in the 2009 book Freakonomics, high-stakes tests create large incentives to risk cheating.
Perhaps in the minds of the Iraqi government, something had to be done. Others have reached a similar conclusion. Last summer, Syria, a country with a history of government-directed internet shutdowns meant to stifle political dissent, began experiencing numerous early morning outages. From our sources in Syria, we learned that, just like in neighboring Iraq, these outages were also meant to combat cheating on student exams.
In response to previous outages, Digital Rights advocacy group Access Now called on the government of Iraq in a letter to reconsider these internet outages. In fact, Access Now lists student exams as one of the Five excuses governments (ab)use to justify internet shutdowns.
It was around this time last year that I wrote a blog post marking the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian internet shutdown. In it, I reflected on documenting the previous five years of government-directed internet shutdowns concluding that:
With five years of hindsight, we can see that the Egyptian Internet shutdown was not an anomaly, but rather a harbinger of things to come, namely, an era where Internet communications would be directly threatened by repressive governments in an effort to control their own people.
It had never occurred to us that soon the primary cause of government-directed internet shutdowns would be desperate attempts to combat cheating on student exams – but here we are.
Last fall, the Brookings Institute put out an analysis, heavily citing our work in documenting these incidents, that estimated the cost of government-directed shutdowns in 2016 to be $2.4 billion. The hope is that putting the impacts of these outages in monetary figures might sway decision makers unmoved by human rights arguments.
I’ll be presenting at Rightscon in Brussels, Belgium next month. Access Now bills the event as where “Human Rights Meets Tech Policy” and I hope to see you there!