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Innovative youth circumvent internet shutdowns in Africa

October 23rd, 2019
by:Bob Koigi
located in:Uganda, Cameroon, Sudan, Nigeria, Eritrea, Kenya, Republic of the Congo
tags:Africa, censorship, internet; internet shutdown, youth

Recent years have seen governments across Africa, from Uganda, Cameroon, Sudan, Eritrea and Nigeria seeking to control information flow and curtail dissident voices. This, at a time when the internet is becoming a powerful tool for championing democracy and holding governments to account.

As internet shutdowns have intensified over the years, economies and businesses are feeling the heat with Sub-Saharan Africa having incurred $237 million in economic losses from 2015, as reported by Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa. The global economy suffered losses of $2.4 billion between 2015 and 2016 as censorship intensified.

And as numerous businesses across the continent find new lifelines on the internet, censorship has threatened these businesses with collapse. With these online businesses being normally run by young people (whose livelihoods depend on these business), the shutdowns have inspired youth-driven, innovative ways of bypassing the blackouts.

At the beginning of this year, in the wake of deadly protests in Zimbabwe over a 150 percent fuel price hike by Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration, the government instituted an internet shutdown as it sought to tame the flow of information, and thereby disrupt protests across the capital Harare. But activists, protesters and businesses keen on spreading information and remaining connected managed to circumvent the shutdown through the use of Virtual Private Networks. A VPN is a set of unique tunnels that hides a user’s location, making it look like they are browsing from another country, allowing the users to evade being locked out of certain sites. So popular did the VPNs become in Zimbabwe, that a UK-based VPN comparison and provider service, BestVPN, indicated that it had recorded a 1500 percent increase in VPN searches among Zimbabweans. And although certain sites couldn’t be accessed, the ability to find new avenues to communicate, thanks to the VPNs, fuelled the protests that eventually saw the government restore internet services.

Last year when the government of Uganda introduced the social media tax for online services like Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp (in what it attributed to new ways of silencing online gossip, as well as finding new revenue collection avenues), the youth turned to VPNs to bypass the restrictions. It was interpreted as a rebellion by the President, who had earlier claimed that the young people were spending too much time online spreading false information.

One year on, Ugandan youth continue to rely on the VPNs, despite consuming more data and using more battery power. They say these costs are bearable however, when compared to the 200 Ugandan Shillings (4p) they would be forced to pay as daily internet tax.

And while governments can block VPNs, they are reluctant to due to the criticism this would invite from international companies and foreign diplomats who rely on them.

“Internet censorship and shutdowns are the new forms of silencing opposition and dissenting voices especially in Africa. But what this is doing is fanning a new wave of online activists, predominantly the youth, who are leading a silent revolt against the authorities by applying innovative ways through which they can communicate. This electronic revolution will redefine the power of the people and the place of young people in governance in years to come”, said Mokongo Omollo a digital rights activist in Eastern Africa.

At the height of the internet shutdown in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon (that lasted some 240 days between 2017 and 2018), young people running a tech hub  had to travel up to 70 kilometres to the French speaking regions to access the internet. This hub was christened Silicon Mountain, and is credited with coming up with some of the most prolific innovations in the country. Nevertheless, they had to travel. Desperate to stay in business, they set up what was known as an internet refugee camp at a village near the border of the Francophone and Anglophone region. They rented a room, set up chairs and tables and got to work pushing for an end to internet censorship through the hashtag #Bringbackourinternet which received global attention.

In other instances, people in the Anglophone region would draft emails on their phones and pass them to friends who were travelling to the French speaking areas. Upon receiving internet connection, the emails would be sent.

The situation was similar in Eastern Congo where businesspeople unable to access the internet would cross over to Rwanda where they would set up temporary offices.

But in a bid to beat the government in the shutdown, the youth in the capital Kinshasa came up with a plan to travel to the neighbouring Republic of Congo where they would secretly buy SIM cards, then move along the Congo River banks until they picked up connection from nearby networks.

“As the internet remains ubiquitous and its power and influence grows, governments will continue looking for ways to clip this influence, but the dilemma for the authorities is how to handle the educated young people who understand the internet landscape and are everyday coming up with unique and brazen ways of beating the authorities at their game. And with the world being a global village, the shutdowns will be overpowered by hashtags and the online global community that are always ahead of authorities,” said Omollo.

Article written by:
Bildschirmfoto-2014-10-08-um-19.29.13
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
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As internet shutdowns have intensified over the years, economies and businesses are feeling the heat with Sub-Saharan Africa having incurred $237 million in economic losses from 2015.
The government instituted an internet shutdown as it sought to tame the flow of information, and thereby disrupt protests across the capital Harare.
The situation was similar in Eastern Congo where businesspeople unable to access the internet would cross over to Rwanda where they would set up temporary offices.
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