Africa is paying heavily   for Internet shutdowns 

Friday May 14 2021
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The Internet shutdown in January in Uganda, which disabled the entire banking sector, cost the country close to Shs7b per day, according to a Comparitech survey. Photo | File

By Faustine Ngila

From Internet shutdowns, social media crackdowns, cyber-attacks, espionage and low digital inclusion, private data tracing apps, digital rights across Africa have never been as infringed as during the Covid-19 period.

As Covid-19 keeps compelling more populations to adopt online services such as e-learning, telemedicine, fintech, insurtech, cab hailing, e-commerce and working from home, the rights of citizens to access and remain protected have been gravely threatened.

Though Internet access and affordability has been improving over the last decade across Africa, online vulnerabilities and a huge digital divide have been witnessed more, according to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation 2020 report on African governance.

The online vulnerabilities are behind rising violation of digital rights in Africa. This has pushed to the forefront the need to come up with solutions. 

One of such solutions is by human rights group, Paradigm Initiative which has created a new platform for the protection of the digital rights of all African citizens.

The platform, named Ripoti, Swahili loosely translated to report, allows citizens across Africa to report violations of their digital rights, which then connects them to experts who can help them seek justice.

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Launched during the closing session of the Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum 2021, the innovation targets to end growing instances of cyber bullying, online gender violence, Internet censorship and illegal use of user private data.

“Digital rights are just as fundamental as all other human rights,” says ‘Gbenga Sesan, the director of Paradigm Initiative.

As more Africans flock online to access information that matters to their lives, many of the vices and violations that used to exist only offline have now started to crop up in the digital space, including sexual harassment, data siphoning and violation of e-consumer rights.

“We have seen a worrying increase in digital rights violations across Africa. Until now, citizens have had no easy way to protect their rights by tracking and reporting these violations. Ripoti empowers them to do that,” Sesan notes.

After combing the Internet across the globe in 2020 and early 2021, British tech research firm Comparitech found that Internet blockades had become rampant particularly in Uganda, which in January experienced a total shutdown and earlier creeping attempts to block access to some sites through institutionalised measures such as taxation. 

The report also found similar abuse in Tanzania, Chad and Ethiopia with, some instances, citizens were denied Internet access for weeks or even moths. 

“In 2020, Chad had the longest shutdown with WhatsApp being blocked for 3,912 hours at a cost of more than Shs97.2b. The shutdown began on July 22 and went up to the end of the year,” the survey reveals. 

Janet Kemboi, the Facebook East Africa spokesperson, has seen it all and notes that the shutdowns across Africa and more specifically in East Africa, have disrupted access to social media, hurting democracy in the process and contravening the freedoms of speech and expression.

“We strongly oppose shutdowns, throttling, and other disruptions of the Internet. We are deeply concerned by the trend towards this approach in some African countries. Even temporary disruptions of Internet services have tremendous, negative human rights, economic and social consequences,” she says. 

Tanzania, whose government has been truncating media freedom, had an Internet blackout which lasted 1,584 hours in 2020 at a cost of more than Shs2.26 trillion. 
In Uganda, the Comparitech survey noted,  the Internet shutdown in January cost close to Shs7b per day on average. 
The shutdown had started with social media and messaging apps on January 12 but on January 13 to 18 government instituted a total shutdown, which disabled a number of sectors including banking and mobile money, among others. 

In Ethiopia, a combined total of 3,657 hours were lost and cost the country over Shs396b, with the first one happening from January to the beginning of April in Western Oromia. The government cited security reasons for the shutdown.

But in June 2020, the entire country went into a 23-day Internet blockade following the shooting of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, a prominent singer.

Another one followed in November in the region of Tigray after war broke out and lasted till December 15 when some services were restored. Shs21.6b was lost in the process in the 960-hour downtime.

“In economic terms, disruptions not only affect the formal economy but also the informal. They have killed democracy as we know it,” Sila Obegi, chief executive of fintech firm Meta Capital says. 

However, this was an improved situation in 2020 compared to 2019, where a report by Welsh VPN company Top10VPN.com indicated that a total of 12 African governments switched off Internet services, leading to a combined loss of Shs7.8 trillion. 

During the period, the survey notes, Internet shutdowns were experienced in Sudan, Algeria, Chad, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Mauritania, Egypt, Benin, Gabon, Eritrea and Liberia. 

Last January, a website known for being critical of the Nigerian government was blocked, allegedly on government orders.
In Burundi, on Election Day WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and Yahoo mail were all rendered inaccessible. Authorities cut access to social media networks as well.

“People want real time information. When you interfere with the natural flow of data sharing, you are killing livelihoods because today’s online business, which supports millions of African families, is anchored on data analytics,” Obegi notes.

Fighting violations     
According to Boye Adegoke, a senior programme manager at Paradigm Initiative, they have actively documented cases of digital rights violations and offered litigation support to victims but they have been overwhelmed by the number of violations, which has informed the need to create a communal, strategic, and systemic response to the many incidents of digital rights violations.

Thus, he says Ripoti, is will partly be the answer. The platform, developed in partnership with the Omidyar Network and the Netherlands Embassy, is available in both English and French and allows for a community response to digital rights violation cases.

editorial@ug.nationmedia.com

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