For years, the internet has had a transformative effect on the economic and financial progress of the African continent. The availability of mobile broadband and fiber optic cable connections encouraged the growth of innovative industries ranging from e-commerce to education, health, insurance and beyond.
But in 2016, the reverse became the reality, as government-directed internet outages became the rule rather than the exception. Throughout the year, numerous African governments intentionally disrupted internet or electronic communication, exerting control over the flow of information and impinging on freedom of expression. These interruptions took place during critical electioneering periods as in Gabon; at protests advocating for social justice and democratic transitions in Ethiopia; or, in the case of Algeria, to stop students from cheating in exams.
The shutdown affected diverse countries from all over the continent: whether they had small populations like Gabon or big ones like Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo; whether in the south of the continent like Zimbabwe, in the north in Algeria, across the east in Burundi and Uganda, and in the west like the shutdown preceding the elections in The Gambia. As such, in 2016, the words “blackouts,” “kill switches” and “internet curfews” became a mainstay in the vocabulary of African political life, alarming civil and digital rights advocates, and in effect, costing African countries hundreds of millions of dollars in much-needed revenue.
Observers say that the harsh measures are a direct result of the exponential growth of the internet as a primary tool for communication and content creation. Besides, with more companies digitally encrypting messaging and calling apps to make eavesdropping and surveillance almost impossible, governments are now resorting to shutting the internet to keep a lid on simmering anger on the ground.
“As more people use the internet and social media, they are also increasingly enjoying the freedom and opportunity these provide to organize themselves and advocate for what they want,” says Deji Olukotun, the senior global advocacy manager at Access Now, which documented shutdowns in at least 11 African countries in 2016. “In response, it seems governments are shutting down the net more often to stop this practice.”
In 2016, government officials also became brazen about their thoughts on how citizens are using the internet and social media. After months of protests that led to the death of hundreds, Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Dessalegn decried the use of social media in his speech at the United Nations, saying it is used to “exploit people’s genuine concerns and spread their message of hate and bigotry without any inhibition.” In Cameroon, less than a month after a train tragedy killed more than 70 people and elicited harsh responses on Twitter and Facebook, the speaker of the parliament called social media “a new form of terrorism” bent on creating a “social pandemic.”
And even in democratic nations like Ghana, the country’s police chief called for the shutting down of the internet during the general elections—a move that was sharply criticized and didn’t take effect when Ghana held successful and peaceful elections in December.
Some governments like DR Congo became particularly effective in instituting surgical strikes against social media networks and not shutting down the entire internet infrastructure. Other like Ethiopia’s deployed tools to not only monitor and filter internet traffic but also interfere and stifle freedom of expression. A report by Amnesty International and the Open Observatory Network Interference found that the Ethiopian government used Deep Packet Inspection technology to censor and block news outlets, websites related to opposition groups, and circumvention software tools like Tor.
Michelle Kagari, Amnesty’s deputy director for east and Horn of Africa, said “The internet blocking had no basis in law and was another disproportionate and excessive response to the protests. This raises serious concerns that overly broad censorship will become institutionalized under the state of emergency.”
Legislation was also another way governments tried to subvert the use of the internet and social media. In Nigeria, the hashtag #NoToSocialMediaBill was used to protest a proposed law that would jail for two years or fine $10,000 anyone posting an “abusive statement” on Twitter, WhatsApp or any form of social media. Tanzania’s government also used its cybercrime law to charge five people for criticizing president John Magufuli on social media.
A close examination of draft cybercrime laws in Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa and Zimbabwe by Access Now also found significant elements of concern in using and accessing the internet. Many clauses in the bills placed restrictions on whistleblowers and digital security researchers; provided vague provisions on criminal defamation; ensured mandatory data retention; and in some countries, had laws that could allow for government hacking without proper judicial or legislative oversight.
But to circumvent these restrictions and make the internet an open and secure platform for all, Olukotun says that different organizations and communities will need to work together to protect digital and human rights. Organizations like the Global Network Initiative, for instance, can play an important role, given that they bring together tech companies, investors, academics, and civil society groups.
“Shutdowns are a truly multi-stakeholder problem, with companies and governments also playing a critical role,” he said. “We all need to work together to reach a solution. This may come in the form of sharing information, education governments, and coordinating on push back when shutdowns occur.”
As internet shutdowns become more sophisticated and surveillance tools become widespread, it will also take creative approaches to spread the message about digital security and accountability. In early December, Access Now partnered with Lush cosmetics company to create a special bath product called Error 404, in reference to the error message that appears when a web page cannot be found and used.
“The Error 404 bath bomb sold in 40 countries and nearly 1,000 stores,” Olukotun said. “From this collaboration, we delivered a petition signed by 46,000 people to world leaders at a UN conference, asking them to publicly commit to keep the internet on.”