The total economic cost of major internet access and social media shutdowns around the world topped US$8 billion last year, according to a new report, which predicted that these disruptions would continue amid ongoing political turmoil.

There were 122 such shutdowns, with a total duration of 18,225 hours, that occurred in 21 countries last year, according to data published on Tuesday by Top10VPN.com, a London-based website that reviews virtual private network services.

“Internet blackouts bring the entire digital economy to a standstill,” Samuel Woodhams, digital rights lead at Top10VPN, said in an email. “They also cause lasting damage by contributing to a loss of investor confidence and hurt the informal economy by disrupting the flow of money enabled by social media platforms and mobile money transactions.”

Iraqi students pose for selfies with a member of the security forces during anti-government protests in the central city of Diwaniyah on October 31. Iraq’s economy was hit hard by major internet and social media shutdowns imposed by the country’s government last year, according to a report by Top10VPN.com. (Picture: AFP)

The Middle East and North Africa region recorded the most costly disruptions, totaling US$3.1 billion last year, the report said. It cited as an example the internet blackouts initiated in Iraq and Iran to stifle widespread anti-government protests.

The findings of the Top10VPN report come as government-led internet shutdown activities continue unabated around the world. A number of countries have already formally legislated internet controls.

Russia, for instance, passed a “sovereign internet” law that took effect on November 1, letting the government block internet traffic from outside the country in an emergency and requiring service providers to filter and divert traffic.

That has been compared to China’s so-called Great Firewall, which slows down cross-border internet traffic and blocks access to selected foreign websites, including Google and Facebook.

There were more internet shutdowns in 2019 than ever before, according to the Top10VPN report. It also said the global economic cost increased 235 per cent from the US$2.4 billion total in the 12 months ended June 30, 2016, estimated by research group Brookings Institution.

The five countries whose economies were hit hardest by major internet and social media disruptions last year included Iraq, Sudan, India, Venezuela and Iran, the Top10VPN report said.

Social media platforms that were most affected by government-led shutdowns were WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

Despite their negative impact on the global economy, human rights and democratic processes, online blackouts are expected to continue this year, with the cost to the global economy likely to rise.

“As the global digital economy continues to grow, the economic impact of internet shutdowns will only increase,” Top10VPN.com’s Woodhams said.