Countries use Internet shutdown to control masses, experts say

Sunday November 15 2020
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A woman browses the Internet. It is increasingly becoming the “new normal” in some African countries, for governments to periodically shutdown the Internet. PHOTO | RACHEL MABALA

By BAMUTURAKI MUSINGUZI

It is increasingly becoming the “new normal” in some African countries,  for governments to periodically shut down the Internet or block social media platforms under the guise of “maintaining public safety and State security” in their respective nations. 

Access Now, an international human rights organisation based in the United States that defends and extends the digital rights of users at risk, notes that when governments shutdown the Internet, they often cite national security, public safety, fake news, hate speech, and others as the main justifications.

But the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), a Ugandan-based information technology research and analysis centre, argues that Internet shutdown is becoming a preferred tool of social control and censorship by some African governments. 

The recent government-led lockdown was in Tanzania, where access to social media was restricted during the October 28 general election, with users relying on virtual private networks (VPNs) to send messages and access information.

The National Electoral Commission declared incumbent John Magufuli’s party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) winners with more than 84 per cent of the vote cast, while the main opposition candidate Tundu Lissu could only garner 13 per cent. 

In July, the government of Ethiopia shut down the Internet following protests demanding justice for the killing of the prominent Oromo musician and social activist, Haacaaluu Hundeessaa. 

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Hundeessaa was shot dead on June 29 in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Following his tragic death at the hands of unknown assailants, it is reported that numerous protests sprung up in Addis Ababa and surrounding areas, with people taking to the streets demanding justice.

According to Access Now, on June 30, a blanket Internet shutdown was implemented by the Ethiopian government, cutting the entire nation off, and denying people their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and access to information.

Ethiopia has previously shut down the Internet more than 12 times. The government shut down the Internet eight times in 2019 alone.

According to NetBlocks, a group which monitors Internet freedom worldwide, Ethiopia suffered an economic loss of at least $100 million due to the two weeks Internet shutdown the government imposed in July. 

The former coordinator of the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU), Mr Crispin Kaheru, recalls the effects of the Internet shutdown by government as Ugandans headed to their respective polling stations to cast their votes in the general elections four years ago.  

On February 18, 2016, on the eve of the much anticipated general election, government of Uganda ordered shutting down of the Internet, citing “national security” concerns as the cause of the restrictions that lasted for four days, affecting millions of users countrywide. 

Critics argued that this draconian move by government was to curtail dissenting voices and information flow. 

On the same day, MTN Uganda, one of the telecommunications service providers, issued a statement on Twitter confirming that “Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), the regulator had directed MTN to disable all social media and mobile money services due to a threat to public order and safety.” 

It is estimated that Uganda lost almost $2 million (about Shs7.3 billion) for every day it shut down the Internet in 2016. The more than 6.7 million Ugandan that use mobile money were unable to access their funds. 

Businesses were unable to provide goods and services and many more ordinary citizens were unlawfully censored, unable to obtain vital information, and barred from accessing  election-related information related which affected the credibility of the entire electoral process. 

“I had just completed setting up an election observation network of more than 1,200 monitors across Uganda. The monitors were primarily relying on the Internet service.  Field reports that integrated pictorial evidence were meant to be transmitted over specific Internet platforms.  The entire infrastructure of returning election observation reports collapsed with the shutting down of the Internet.  We had to recalibrate to a more tedious SMS system of reporting.  This system did not permit us to receive photos and videos of electoral occurrences from the field,” Kaheru told Sunday  Monitor.

“The entire election observation mission nearly collapsed. It was also difficult to transfer funds to our observers across the country due to Internet limitations.  Basically, the mission had serious encumbrances. Not many observers could reconfigure their hand-held devices to integrate virtual private networks (VPNs) at short notice. Most observers actually fell off the grid,” he added.

As to what impact this shutdown had on the tallying of results on the side of the Opposition, Mr Kaheru, said: “I think generally, the transparency around results transmission and tallying was reduced. The electorate could not readily access results in a timely manner.  I recall most stakeholders raising concerns about the autistic manner in which the Electoral Commission was receiving and sharing tallied results.”

More than 196 Internet shutdowns were documented in 25 countries around the world in 2018. Just as it has been since 2015, India was responsible for the majority: 67 per cent of the world’s documented shutdowns took place in India in 2018, with 134 incidents.

 The remaining 33 per cent took place in a diverse range of countries: Algeria, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic Congo, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Mali, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, and Russia, “The State of Internet Shutdowns Around the World 2018” report by Access Now shows. 

According to Access Now, there were 21 instances of partial or total Internet shutdowns in Africa in 2018, compared with 13 in 2017 and 4 in 2016. 

The 2019 report titled Despots and Disruptions: Five Dimensions of Internet Shutdowns in Africa by CIPESA notes that up to 22 African governments have ordered network disruptions between 2016 and 2019. It adds that Internet shutdowns remain the preserve of Africa’s most despotic states.

According to the CIPESA report, 77 per cent of the countries where Internet shutdowns have been ordered in the last five years are categorised as authoritarian under the Democracy Index produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit. 

All the other African countries that have disrupted communications are categorised as hybrid regimes, meaning they have some elements of democracy with strong doses of authoritarianism.

The authoritarian regimes that have ordered network disruptions include Algeria, Burundi, the Central African Republic (CAR), Cameroon, Chad, DR Congo, Congo (Brazzaville), Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon,  Ethiopia, Libya, Mauritania, Niger, Togo, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Hybrid regimes that have ordered Internet shutdowns include the Gambia, Mali, Morocco, Sierra Leone, and Uganda.  

For countries that are classified as authoritarian but have not ordered shutdowns, the CIPESA report states that it is likely that “the authoritarian state is so brutal or commanding that civil society or opposition organising and protests – online and offline – are unfathomable” or “Internet control measures in place render ordering overt Internet disruptions unnecessary.” These countries include Djibouti, Eritrea and Rwanda.

Over the years, many network disruptions have typically occurred in autocratic African countries around election times, CIPESA observes in the report.  

The report notes that governments that order disruptions and the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that implement them now more openly acknowledged the disruptions. 

Governments often cite digital technologies’ increasing usage to spread disinformation, propagate hate speech, and to allegedly fan public disorder and undermine national security.

For their part, more ISPs and platform operators are making public their responses to shutdown directives and interception requests from governments through transparency reports. 

“This openness could represent the normalisation of shutdowns, implying that a growing number of governments feel no shame in openly acknowledging ordering shutdowns. However, it has positive elements too, as it can be the basis of litigation and push back advocacy,” the report CIPESA report observes.

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A user attempts to update Facebook’s WhatsApp application on his mobile phone. Many users are opting for VPN to run their social media accounts during Internet shutdowns. PHOTO | AFP

“Network disruptions often occur in autocratic states during public protests, elections periods, and national school exams. Disruptions to digital communications curtail citizens’ access to information in order to limit what the citizens can see, do, or communicate. In so doing, states stunt civic participation in processes, limit press freedom and even affect access to crucial services such utilities, health and education, and economic livelihoods,” the executive director of CIPESA,  Dr Wairagala Wakabi told  Sunday  Monitor.  

“In the CIPESA, “Framework for Calculating the Economic Impact of Internet Disruptions in sub-Saharan Africa,” we further argued that Internet disruptions, however short-lived, affect many facets of society and the national economy and tend to persist far beyond the period in which access is disrupted. They undermine investor confidence, raise reputational risk and are detrimental to foreign direct investments (FDI),” Dr Wakabi added. 

“The Internet is a globally accessible network that is not regulated by any single regulator in the planet. Many governments around the world have responded to this by attempting to disconnect the Internet whenever they deem necessary. The effectiveness of this approach remains to be seen with time,” the Roke Telkom, chief commercial officer, Michael Mukasa told Sunday Monitor.  

“Slowing social interaction among people is inadvertently restricting people’s right to freely express themselves; it is slowing people from assembling, demonstrating or sharing and accessing information.  As societies get more and more connected via the Internet, Internet shutdowns become more viable pathways of slowing communication among people.  Some rulers are alive to the reality that, if people don’t communicate, then they can’t effectively organize or mobilise to rid themselves of bad leaders,” Kaheru says.

 In the face of Internet shutdowns people have resorted to VPNs to evade government restrictions.

According to Christopher Giles of the BBC World Service, these VPNs encrypt data paths; make it difficult for service providers to block access to restricted sites. Governments can also block VPNs, but are less inclined to do so because this also severely inconveniences foreign diplomats and large companies which use them.

“VPNs are important in that case because then, they allow for a detour to circumvent the blockades,” Kaheru says.

“We strongly oppose shutdowns, throttling, and other disruptions of the Internet or of a subset of websites, apps, and services and are deeply concerned by the trend towards this approach in some countries,” Facebook’s Africa Public Policy Director, Kojo Boakye told Sunday  Monitor.

“Even temporary disruptions of Internet services have tremendous, negative economic and social consequences disrupting access to the Internet or to apps and services like Facebook and WhatsApp. This separates people from their family, friends, and livelihoods. It undermines economic activity and growth by harming SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and disrupting the startup ecosystem. It harms stability by interrupting normal economic and social activity. It chills free expression; and restricts access to vital information,” Boakye added.

The 2019 CIPESA report reiterates that Internet disruptions, however short-lived, affect many facets of the national economy and tend to persist far beyond the days on which access is disrupted. 

“If just five of the countries that have previously disrupted Internet, access and who are going to the polls this year disrupted access to Internet including apps such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp at a nationwide level for five days each, the estimated economic cost would be more than USD 65.6 million,” the report states.

Further, the report notes that the countries that disrupt Internet access have some of the lowest Internet usage figures and highest data prices in Africa. Conventional wisdom might suggest that low-Internet usage countries would be the last to disrupt Internet access as they might consider the population online too small to threaten “public order” or “national security” or to threaten the regime’s hold on power. 

On the contrary, says the report, it appears that African governments with democracy deficits, regardless of the numbers of their citizens that use the Internet, fear the power of the Internet in enabling citizen organising and empowering ordinary people to speak truth to power.

Human Rights Violations

Access Now observes that whether because of elections, protests, or exams, every Internet shutdown has a story, a human being, a human rights violation behind it, and a perpetrator who pulled the plug. 

In addition to directly infringing the right of access to information and freedom of expression, Internet shutdowns can hide grave human rights violations. 

In 2018, there were at least 33 incidents of state violence reported during Internet shutdowns. It appears that in some cases, governments and law enforcement may cut off access to the Internet to unleash fury on citizens with impunity. In Sudan, protesters have become victims of state violence under the “cover” of shutdowns, Access Now observes in its 2018 global report.  

In its 2017 Policy Brief: Internet Shutdowns, the Internet Society notes that Internet shutdowns have far-reaching technical, economic, and human rights impacts. They undermine users’ trust in the Internet, setting in motion a whole range of consequences for the local economy, the reliability of critical online government services, and even for the reputation of the country itself. Policymakers need to consider these costs alongside security imperatives.

“Internet shutdowns affect economies in multiple ways, upsetting productivity and generating monetary losses in time-sensitive transactions,” the Internet Society says.

Government-led Internet shutdowns cost the global economy $8 billion in 2019, according to research published by Internet research firm Top10VPN in January 2020.

Research by Top10VPN analyzed the economic impact of Internet shutdowns around the world throughout 2019. The cost of Internet blackouts were calculated on Netblocks’ and the Internet Society’s cost of shutdown tool, which uses indicators from the World Bank, International Telecommunication Union, Eurostat and U.S. Census Bureau.

Top10VPN traced 18,225 hours of Internet shutdowns around the world in 2019, which carried a total economic cost of $8.05 billion.

Researchers noted that there were more shutdowns in 2019 than ever before, with the total cost surging 235 percent from 2016. There were 122 major incidents around the world in 2019. 

According to Top10VPN, the Middle East and North Africa took the biggest economic hit from Internet shutdowns in 2019, with costs exceeding $3 billion.

Sub-Saharan Africa followed suit, with costs of almost $2.2 billion, while Asia — the region with the most documented shutdown hours at 9,677 — had a blackout cost of $1.7 billion.

Iraq was the country with the highest total shutdown cost, with the country’s economy reportedly losing $2.3 billion through Internet blackouts in 2019. According to the research, Iraq suffered 263 hours of deliberate connectivity disruptions last year, impacting almost 19 million Internet users.

Sudan had the second highest costs at $1.8 billion. India was the third worst-hit economy, with Top10VPN tracking more than 100 “highly targeted” shutdowns in the country in 2019.

DR CONGO & ZIMBABWE CASE

A December 2018 Internet shutdown in the DR Congo was estimated to have an economic cost of $3 million per day.

A January 2019 Internet shutdown in Zimbabwe reportedly cost the country $5.7 million each of the six days it was unavailable.

“There is currently no evidence of the effectiveness of shutdowns to solve the issues they are meant to address, in particular when they are meant to restore public order. In fact, research has found that information blackouts resulting from Internet shutdowns can actually result in increased violence, with violent tactics that are less reliant on effective communication and coordination being substituted for non-violent protests that rely on the Internet for organisation. 

Damages

There are also multiple accounts of collateral damages provoked by these measures, including impacts to civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights,” the Internet Society concludes in its 2017 “Policy Brief: Internet Shutdowns.” 

“In addition, Internet shutdowns tend to attract international attention and create pressure on countries that undertake them. 

This relates to the so-called “Streisand effect,” where the attempt to silence voices or hide information leads to the unintended consequence of bringing more attention to them,” the Internet Society adds.


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