The internet shutdown that engulfed Ethiopia last week caught many by surprise.
While at the hotel on the morning of June 11, I lost connectivity midway through writing an email to a source. Half an hour later, I walked into a branch of the country’s sole mobile operator Ethio Telecom to purchase a SIM card. After setting up my device, the saleswoman couldn’t understand why the internet wasn’t connecting on my phone. Maybe your handset, she innocently quipped, is “too old” or “has a problem.”
At the time, what I—and she, hopefully—didn’t know then was that we were in the early hours of a days-long, nationwide digital blackout. Authorities restricted social media platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram and disabled SMS text messaging in measures aimed at deterring cheating during national secondary school exams.
What followed was a numbing, exasperating experience, akin to waking up in a subterranean, benighted world. Besides impacting businesses increasingly reliant on online transactions, the internet suspension also devastated the operations of the nascent but rising tech sector popularly known as Sheba Valley.
There has been a marked rise in recorded web disruptions globally, but African countries are dominating the leader board of national shutdowns in 2019. Sudan, DR Congo, and Chad are among countries that entered the year totally or partially offline, and they have since been joined by the likes of Algeria, Benin, Eritrea, Mauritania, Liberia, and Somalia. The orders for these interruptions are mostly coming from those at the helm, with dictatorships and partial democracies the biggest offenders. Regulators and telecommunication companies aren’t providing advance warnings or justification for these suspensions too—even though some have linked them to preserving public safety, limiting hate speech, and reducing exam cheats.
Given the alarming frequency of these stoppages, “we have surely reached a new high which is becoming a major concern for Africans,” says the Africa regional bureau director for the Internet Society, Dawit Bekele.
Africa is the least-connected continent globally, but the upsurge in smartphone adoption, decreasing data costs, and declining phone prices has only amplified the place of the internet as a transformative tool. That’s why the blackouts are harmful not just for economic growth and democracy but also for social cohesion, innovation, net neutrality, and freedom of expression. Besides targeted shutdowns, authorities are also using surveillance, arbitrary legislation, along with taxation to silence digital users.
There isn’t an “obvious pattern” to the cut-offs too, says Alp Toker, director of internet monitoring organization NetBlocks. Authoritarian-leaning governments have continued to shut the internet at the first sign of public criticism, Toker argues, but they have been joined by countries like Benin and Liberia where there were high hopes for change.
The internet censorship in Sudan has also worsened after Omar al-Bashir was forced out of power in April, and Algeria has continued nationwide social media blackouts which were a hallmark of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s rule.
“The tipping point is here,” Toker notes. “Indeed, it may be that the tipping point has come and gone—there’s circumstantial evidence [which] suggests that shutdowns have been greatly underreported and we are only now waking to the problem.”
The internet in Ethiopia came back on for a while with operator Ethio Telecom apologizing for the interruptions. But that doesn’t necessarily vindicate the company, which has again blocked access following a thwarted coup attempt. It also doesn’t assuage the fear, frustration, and anger felt by millions of users who have to repeatedly endure cut-offs.
Rather than turning to “shutdowns as a policy tool,” Dawit says “Governments should be cognizant that shutdowns affect many sectors of society and its imperative to engage in an open exchange to seek alternative ways of addressing legitimate issues.”
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