Authoritarian governments in Africa are using internet shutdowns as a new tool of repression as they strong-arm telecoms companies into flicking the off switch.
Since the start of the year at least six African countries have turned off access to part or all of the internet and in each case the government has required the assistance of mobile operators to do it.
The official orders to block internet access and messaging services have left operators caught, experts say, between their obligations to regulators and a moral duty to protect customers’ freedom to communicate.
Both the UN and the African Union have passed resolutions condemning internet shutdowns as a violation of human rights, yet disruptions continue with increasing frequency.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where access to the entire internet was shut down for 20 days after a widely discredited presidential election last December, the global telecoms groups Vodafone of the UK and France’s Orange said they had no choice but to comply.
Orange, the second-biggest mobile network provider in Congo, said instructions to restrict internet and messaging services came from the “empowered authorities” and that under the terms of its license it is required to respond.
“We cannot oppose requests for restriction based on local regulation or our license obligations without risk of exposing our employees to heavy penalties,” said a spokesperson.
Vodafone, which owns a controlling stake in Vodacom, Congo’s biggest operator, said it has to balance a responsibility to respect customers’ “right to privacy and freedom of expression” with its obligation to respond to lawful instructions from regulators. “Refusal to comply with a country’s laws is not an option,” it said.
Across Africa, platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook have made it easier for politicians, activists and citizens to talk and organise at speed via smartphone. But the government’s ability to shut down those conversations has become a powerful new weapon in the arsenal of autocratic leaders.
Asia and Africa suffer the most internet blackouts during 2016-18, Asia had 310, Africa 46, Europe 12 and South America 3
Though the Congolese government made no formal announcement confirming it had ordered the shutdown, ruling party officials said it was necessary to prevent the circulation of false vote counts. The more important impact, democracy campaigners said, was that candidates and civil society groups could not verify election results by dispatching teams to the 70,000 polling stations to photograph and send photos of the official counts via smartphones.
Some governments have justified the disruptions as necessary to prevent the planning of potentially violent protests. In other cases, the authorities and service providers have offered no explanation at all, leaving citizens in the dark as access to online services suddenly dropped off.
In Benin, as citizens queued up to vote in parliamentary elections late last month, internet providers began to block access to social media networks including Facebook and Twitter. By midday 99.5 per cent of Benin was offline, according to NetBlocks, an organisation that tracks internet disruptions.
Internet advocacy group Access Now, which is based in London, calculates that there were 188 shutdowns globally in 2018, up from 108 in 2017 and 75 in 2016. Over those three years 310 occurred in Asia and 46 in Africa. But it is in Africa where the trend appears to be growing most quickly, and where blackouts — when access is not just reduced but completely blocked — are becoming more common, said advocacy director, Melody Patry.
The technology required to filter or block access to the internet is unsophisticated and exists at every internet service provider, experts say. To use it authorities need the service providers to comply and in most cases they do.
“The idea of a national kill switch is actually a bit of a myth. In almost all cases we have seen connectivity drop off provider by provider,” said Alp Toker, executive director at NetBlocks. “It means that these companies are, in a way, party to the censorship, in that they have a choice of whether to push back or to implement the block.”
While it is true that some operating licenses allow the regulator to demand a suspension of internet services without a court ruling or further justification, Access Now is trying to encourage network providers to push back against such provisions when negotiating licenses and to legally equip firms to oppose such orders.
Shutdowns often violate local law, providing network providers with a sound legal basis on which to oppose the request, Ms Patry said.
In Zimbabwe in January, advocacy groups successfully petitioned the High Court that the government’s shutdown of the internet during protests over rising fuel prices was unlawful and the judge ordered providers to immediately restore services.
Such shutdowns come with economic costs. Telecoms firms in Congo say they lost about $40m in revenue during the 20-day shutdown, while NetBlocks estimates that the total cost to the economy may have been around $64m.
In other more digitally connected economies the impact of a complete blackout would be far more severe. Shutting down the internet would cost Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, as much as $134m a day, according to Mr Toker. In the UK the equivalent bill would be £1.7bn a day.
Chart showing how an internet outage in Sudan affects its economy more, in terms of % of GDP, than other African countries
Other governments have pursued more selective strategies. In Sudan, where the military last month ousted dictator Omar Bashir after four months of demonstrations, the government disrupted social media for 68 consecutive days but kept other parts of the internet open. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp outages began on 21 December 2018 and lasted until February 26 2019, according to NetBlocks.
Algeria imposed blackouts in some areas in March amid protests that eventually led the army to oust the ailing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. In Chad access to most social media sites has been blocked by authoritarian leader Idris Deby for more than a year.
The increasing frequency of disruptions points to the “normalisation of shutdowns” among a growing number of governments willing to look past the economic cost in order to control elections, hide human rights abuses and hold on to power, Ms Patry said.
“And when a country shuts the internet down once, it is much more likely to shut it down again.”