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African economies bleed under growing internet censorship

July 10, 2019
topic:Digital Rights
tags:#democracy, #Africa, #internet, #censorship
located:Ethiopia, Benin, Tanzania
by:Bob Koigi
Within the first three weeks of January this year, six African governments had blocked internet access under the pretext of safeguarding national security in what is shaping out to be the newest form of curtailing freedom of expression in the continent.

But democracy isn’t the only casualty of this new censorship, as economies haemorrhage millions of dollars and the continent is cut off from the rest of the world. Various reports have pointed to a reversal of gains in internet penetration across Africa, as a direct result of these shutdowns.

Data from Access Now, a New York-based human rights institution indicates that the shutdowns have been costing these countries up to $5 million in lost tax revenues, money transfer services, bank transaction charges and profits from online businesses.

Washington DC-based think tank The Brookings Institution, on the other hand, put the cost of internet censorship in seven African countries it surveyed in 2016 at $320 million.

Within specific countries like Ethiopia, the recent failed coup in Amhara resulted in the government instituting an internet ban for its 16.4 million internet users. This has seen the country lose $4.5 million every day according to a study by global internet freedom NGO Netblocks.

In Benin, a one-day shutdown has been costing the country $1.54 million with Internet Society, a US-based internet institution saying that in more populous nations the numbers can go up five times. “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”, read a section of a report dubbed Despots and Disruptions: Five Dimensions of Internet Shutdowns in Africa by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA). The shutdowns in Africa have also been growing in number in the recent past having stood at 11 in 2016, 13 in 2017 and 21 in 2018.

Repressive regimes, aware of the power of the internet to topple them, as was the case with the Arab Spring of 2011, have now moved to stifle information flow ensuring public debate, social action or dissent are curtailed before they are actualised.

“There is a very distinct pattern about what is inspiring these internet shutdowns and it leans towards political unrest. Zimbabwe’s shutdown was informed by the violent protests that were sparked by the fuel price hikes; Sudan due to the cost of demonstrations occasioned by the rise of the cost of bread that eventually toppled long-serving ruler Omar Bashir; and finally, Congo due to the disputed and delayed elections. But even as the studies quantify the losses in the internet censorship, there are other numerous losses that cannot be quantified like losing contact with loved ones during a crisis or lack of credible information that allows people to make informed decisions”, said Gerald Adoma a digital rights activist in East Africa.

The face of internet closure in Africa is perhaps Cameroon where the government suspended internet services for 240 days between 2017 and 2018, the longest shutdown to have been experienced in Africa, as it sought to tame runaway protests that had rocked the English-speaking regions with lawyers, teachers and students taking to the streets to vent their frustrations over growing marginalisation by the French-speaking government.

Silicon Mountain’ a flourishing tech-startup movement in the region was hardest hit and with no internet access, had to travel for hours to access an internet point. The shutdown renewed the resolve of the tech enthusiasts and saw Nji Collins Gbah, a teenager become the first-ever African to win the prestigious Google Code-In, a global hacking challenge targeting students between the ages of 13 and 17. He hailed from the English-speaking zone.

The foremost and easiest way African governments have been instituting the shutdowns has been through the Internet Service Providers, ISPs, because they are few in number and most of them enjoy a cosy relationship with the government. At times the access is limited to certain websites or social media sites while in extreme cases the access is completely denied. URL-based blocking is the most common where users try to access sites and get the “server not found" or "this site has been blocked by the network administrator” messages.

The founder of Econet, Zimbabwe’s largest telecommunication company, Strive Masiyiwa, issued a statement to customers via Twitter following the government’s internet ban explaining that the decision was informed by a written warrant from the Office of the President. "As an organisation, we are obliged to act when directed to do so in terms of the law. We urge others to respect that this is a matter beyond our control”, he said adding that defying the orders would see them face three years imprisonment.

Beyond targeting ISPs, other regimes have introduced other tactics as is the case with Uganda that in July 2018 introduced a social media tax. Users are supposed to pay $0.50 daily to access social sites like Facebook, Twitter Whatsapp and Youtube. The Computer use and Cybercrime law in Kenya while being introduced to "outlaw the abuse of people on social media" has been interpreted as a clever way for the government to censor internet and limit digital rights.

The Tanzanian government introduced a requirement in 2018 which stipulates that bloggers must be certified by the government and pay approximately $900 to have their blogs licensed. This has been seen as a way of discouraging those looking to enter the online publishing business due to the high charges while giving the government a free hand to censor the internet.

But Africans have learnt to beat the system at its game and are increasingly circumventing the censorship through new and innovative ways. One is the use of virtual private networks, VPN, which creates a tunnel to the outside world allowing users to access internet as if they are in a country without restrictions. It has been hugely practised in Uganda since the introduction of the social media tax with computer schools even in rural areas getting a lot of interest from ordinary people not just on computer lessons but on how to install VPNs.

Researchers and internet rights groups have predicted that with numerous elections and growing political tension in Africa, internet censorship will be at an all-time high this year. But so are the number of innovations and campaigns like #KeepitOn that has more than 190 civil society organisations from 66 countries. Internet rights advocates have declared war on repressive regimes.

“It cannot be business as usual with these regimes. They cannot control the internet which is ubiquitous as they did with traditional media. There has been a concerted effort at pursuing robust policy, advocacy and rolling out tech tools to counter the blockages and we will ensure we educate everyone about this because internet access is a fundamental right for all,” said Crispin Muhoro an internet freedom advocate based in Nairobi Kenya.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Ethiopia Benin Tanzania
Embed from Getty Images
Democracy isn’t the only casualty of this new censorship, as economies haemorrhage millions of dollars and the continent is cut off from the rest of the world.
Embed from Getty Images
Data from Access Now, a New York-based human rights institution indicates that the shutdowns have been costing these countries up to $5 million in lost tax revenues
Embed from Getty Images
Within specific countries like Ethiopia, the recent failed coup in Amhara resulted in the government instituting an internet ban for its 16.4 million internet users.
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