Switching off Internet has a huge cost, it must never happen again

Transacting through ATMs was also affected. Bank customer could not conduct any transaction through the Automated Teller Machines. PHOTO | file 

What you need to know:

Selfish. Whereas security is an important aspect, some Ugandans say government’s action to switch off the Internet was nothing but selfish.

The Internet shutdown was an unevaluated and selfish decision, whose merit has not been properly explained away from the veiled excuse of threat to security, at least some Ugandans believe.

Of course considering how you view it, this is an issue that is subjective inviting both frowns and praises.

Before the shutdown, government had earmarked social media platforms as high security risk.

“We regret the actions we took but it was for the national interest. I want to say this, our actions were all guided by the national intelligence and the plans of other strong elements to disrupt elections,” ICT Minister Peter Ogwang, told the country three days after the Internet had been reinstated.

Uganda has at least 20 million Internet subscriptions - nearly 50 per cent of the Ugandan population, the latest Communications market performance report of quarter three indicates.

According to Uganda Communication Commission (UCC), this is the first time that total Internet subscriptions has crossed the 20 million mark, suggesting that nearly one in every two Ugandans has Internet access.

Available reports indicate that the process of disrupting digital communications commenced on January 9 with applications download platforms such as Google Play and App Store experiencing disruptions and by January 11, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Whatsapp had started filing reports of interferences.

But how does government kick people off the Internet?

“Internet access within the country is facilitated by international gateways that are managed by Internet Service Providers licensed by UCC. When UCC orders providers to close these gateways, our networks cannot access international servers so you end up without Internet,” Albert Mucunguzi, the ICT Association of Uganda chairman says.

From the ICT community, there are bits on the extent of the damage. It will not be clear at least for another two months.

According to information from the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa, an organisation that focuses on decision-making that facilitates the use of ICT in support of development and poverty reduction, Uganda has over the years made it a habit to disrupt communications during elections.

Often, the protection of national security and public order has been cited as the basis for disruptions to digital communications.

That, according to the business community, wouldn’t be a problem although it is also important for government to take into account the opportunity cost that such actions have on businesses, most of which pay the biggest price in terms of losses coming from such decisions.

“We are doing an audit to try to understand as well as quantify the extent of losses that our members accrued as a result of the shutdown,” the Executive Director Private Sector Foundation Gideon Badagawa, said when contacted last week on Thursday.

Definitely, he said, those in the ICT sector and business outsourcing must have been impacted, noting there is need to understand that businesses are increasingly moving into e-commerce, including when making orders and delivery.

Therefore, he says: “We shall assess the impact and try to cost it. That should not mean that we do not care about the security of the country. All we are saying is that everything has an opportunity cost and that is what we are trying to assess.”

For some firms, what government describes as a few losses has left gross damage.

“Before we even switched off the Internet, we knew that we were going to have a few cases of making losses but also like I have said, we look at the national interest,” Ogwang said. 

The move was unprecedented, especially that key sectors of the economy such as trade, transport, banking, telecom, education, entertainment, media, health and information technology support, were all in a blackout.

Businesses had gone through the uncertainties of Covid-19.

With systems moving from analog to digital platforms, organisational strategies have been leveraging on technology as firms work remotely and virtually.

Those who depend on the Internet to eke a living are still counting losses.

Jumia says its vendors lost up to a billion shillings every day of the blackout.

Over 20,000 Safe Boda cyclists lost between Shs30,000 to Shs50,000 every day in online income.

Mustapha Mugisa is the Director Institute of Forensics and ICT Security.

His business has everything to do with extending cyber security support to firms.

Businesses such as his are likely to spend another three years strengthening the capabilities they had prior to the shutdown and they think compensation from government could ease their pain.

All mobile money transactions were disrupted, making people in the mobile transactions value chain count billions of shillings in losses. PHOTO | file

“We support some financial institutions for example in Kenya and have to continuously have servers on, monitoring threats. Many times, people are trying to probe into networks to see what can be stolen. When Internet is off, even if you have a backup say an MTN line, it means my backup line cannot work,” he says and notes: “If I am not able to monitor someone’s threats for even one hour, the contract provides a heavy penalty.”

Some organisations are paying a huge price for failure to fulfil contracts and not even the force majeure clause can save them.

“Organisations that are outside Uganda do not understand this kind of thing. Breaching contracts is catastrophic. You could not explain more than two days of downtime. As a company, you lose a monthly fee of $5,000 (Shs18.5m),” Mugisa says.  Research availed by the Institute of Forensics and ICT Security shows that in a country with more than 50 per cent Internet penetration, the impact of a shutdown per day would average over $15m (Shs55b) per 10 million people.

A December 2018 shutdown in DR Congo is said to have cost the country $3m (Shs11b) per day.

When contacted for this article, Uganda Bankers Association Chairman Mathias Katamba, says they are still working on a cost analysis that might take some time.

However, he notes, not the entire banking sector was shut down because the blackout happened on public holidays, which experience a reduction in banking activities.

He nevertheless notes that the impact on customers transacting online (digitally) and those involved in trade financing cannot be underestimated.

This, he says, in the middle of an ongoing audit being done to assess the extent of the loss resulting from the Internet disruptions.  

For as long as some aspects of the Internet remain blocked, it will be misrepresentative to estimate the loss by some firms.

MTN Senior Manager Communications Rhona Arinaitwe says: “We have not focused on that right now. We would be able do more when everything is restored fully.

Any number we give you is not a full estimate because a lot of people are not on social media.”

Shutdowns affect the overall digital competitiveness of countries and the repercussions are significant for those that rely on advertising.

“You have websites such as Daily Monitor whose work is to keep their sites ranked highly. When they have high traffic, they are able to monetise that traffic by running Google adverts. When Internet is off, the website cannot be accessed but also accessible competing sites get better ranking hence Google advertising income. Recovering your ranking becomes difficult,” Mugisa says. 

Kelly Daniel, the Executive Director i-Freedom Uganda Network, a digital rights organization, runs a side business online and wants government to lift the ban on social media platforms as business cannot happen effectively even with the use of virtual Private Network (VPN).

 “We cannot advertise effectively anymore. Sales are going down because more people cannot order. When people use VPNs, they appear to be in a different country. They see adverts in German, French because their Internet Protocol address, the identifier that allows information to be sent between devices on a network is located in those countries. People are now getting adverts for the countries where the VPNs are located not adverts from Uganda,” Daniel notes but also suggests alternative ways to minimise losses resulting from blocked social media sites.

 “People should think about selling on applications like Jumia for business continuity. They can also develop applications to meet their business needs or set up websites where buyers can shop. This means they should only use social media as a tool to advertise,” he says. 

Was an avoidable incidence

The only good news is that without Internet access, there is no exposure to cyber threats. That was the safest period for businesses, experts say.

The general feeling now is that public vigilance on misinformation could help avoid future shutdowns  but finding alternative ways on government’s end is a better option.

For ICT players, government could have opted to put checkpoints on the traffic on Internet. It could have identified, isolated and prosecute those abusing Internet use.

With alternatives that enable governments to remove harmful content, give correct accounts for fake news or use sophisticated learning algorithms to flag fake news. The resulting shutdown is described as an indicator of low maturity in terms of cyber weaponry and warfare.

“They can create cyber weaponry and warfare capabilities where they channel all traffic into a single point. Using machine learning and artificial intelligence, they are able to categorise traffic from good or bad sources. Even if people are using VPNs, you can examine traffic based on keyword content that traffic has. There is also high risk factor profiling in government so if they profile certain users based on location and keywords they use in the election, then you are able to let others using internet eke a living from it instead of suffocating them,” Mugisa explains.

A costly routine

It should be noted that this is not the first time this is happening.  Beginning from 2006, the government blocked websites that it deemed critical.

In 2011, it censored short message service (SMS) and blocked social media during the post-election #WalkToWork protests.

In 2016, the government blocked social media and mobile money services on Election Day and section of social media such during President Museveni’s swearing in.  

While Uganda is categorised as a hybrid regime – one that has democratic and authoritarian tendencies - CIPESA research has shown that the less democratic credentials a government possesses, the higher the likelihood that it will order Internet disruptions. It has also shown a correlation between a leader’s longevity in power and the likelihood of ordering network disruptions. Some have said elections happen once in five years and the impact is negligible. But for others that play in this space, the future is made uncertain even for this one incident.

“It is likely that in future it will happen again. It may even come when the issue is not an election,” Mugisa says, “From a business point of view and even for investors, it makes risk profiling uncertain. Someone is not sure that the decisions of government are always going to follow this kind of pattern. Even if the shutdown happened for the first time, the first thing is that it should not have happened.”

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