The siege on internet freedom: How African governments are tightening their grips 

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It has been 12 days since the Cameroonian government cut off internet access in the Bamende and Yaounde English-speaking regions as a way of clamping down on ongoing protests.

Businesses, schools, banks and everyone else dependent on internet connectivity are suffering while the end is nowhere in sight.

The central African country is the latest in the list of countries that have responded to citizen unrest or elections by targeting the main medium of communication used to rally around protests.

While internet shutdowns are not new to the continent, they have seen a rise in recent years.

In 2016 alone, at least 11 countries saw one form of internet censorship or another.

Burundi, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Gambia, Gabon, and Uganda all saw shutdowns in 2016 either before, during or after each country held national elections.

Zimbabwe cut off access to WhatsApp and Twitter during its nationwide stay-away which saw public and private employees staying at home in demonstration of their frustration with the way the ZANU-PF-led government is handling the economy.

Mali also saw social media being blocked during demonstrations in August. In June, Algeria blocked social media alleging it was a bid to stop high school students from cheating in their exams.

The Ghanaian police force and government had announced it would. shut the internet down during its 7th December 2016 elections, but soon backtracked on the decision.

Two weeks ago, the Kenyan government threatened an internet shutdown should there be instability during its upcoming national elections in August.

What’s driving the siege on internet freedom?

“The African governments that have been shutting down the internet have an authoritarian bent,” notes Nanjira Sambuli, Digital Equality Advocacy Manager at the World Wide Web Foundation.

“The growing trend is indicative of a fear within political ranks of what happens when citizens start exercising their voice. They may have ‘analogue’ ways of suppressing this (like banning protest marches), but some are adopting shutdowns as the digital equivalent of containing dissent. In some ways, shutdowns are just the tip of the iceberg. Many government are also are beefing up secret surveillance of our digital lives, artificially forcing huge increases in the cost of connecting, or passing laws criminalising “sensitive” speech on social media.  All of these are ways of trying to control the masses and how they communicate,” Sambuli says.

Is it in violation of any human right?

The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution in 2016 condemning internet shutdowns and previously declared access to internet a basic human right.

This would then mean that anyone who cuts internet access off, is in violation of a basic human right. But, it’s not so straightforward.

“The problem with these statements, and other resolutions is that they are non-binding, and so national laws and their provisions are the most crucial instruments,” Sambuli notes.

She goes on to say that the idea that the internet has an off-switch that’s a phone call away (most telcos indicate that they receive direct orders to shut things down) is a red flag unto itself, which should get citizens assessing what laws in their respective countries can be used to justify shutdowns, as well as mass surveillance or the criminalisation of digital dissent.

In many cases, there are either outdated laws, or ambiguous ones (for instance, Security Laws and how they define ‘national security’) giving a wide latitude for governments to claim they are acting within the law.

“For now, it seems clear that governments heading down an authoritarian path are not deterred by questions of legality when it comes to online censorship, spying and shutdowns. And legal challenges can take time to be heard by the courts. So for citizens in countries experiencing shutdowns, the best current course of action is to try to bring the attention of the national and international community to the issue,” Sambuli says.

What can you do during an internet shutdown?

Those with access to a VPN service or are outside the affected countries, have used social media to raise awareness about internet shutdowns. But what can citizens in the affected countries do?

“When faced with a shutdown, citizens can take two types of actions – technical and political. Each shutdown is usually executed slightly differently, but on the technical front,, users can sometimes bypass restrictions, perhaps by browsing the web using Tor, using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), or leveraging applications like Firechat,” Sambuli says.

“On the political front, citizens need to make as much noise as possible – letting politicians know in no uncertain terms that their actions will cost them votes. We should also let tech companies know that if they want to keep our business, we expect them to do the maximum possible to resist shutdown demands. Civil society organisations have a key role to play – both locally and internationally. Politicians and companies generally don’t like public criticism, so media coverage can also play an important role.”

Sambuli adds that all of these steps should be taken with careful regard to personal safety, as encrypting communications is a must.

Can the war against internet censorship be won?

Governments have very powerful tools that citizens do not have – including security forces and law – in order to strong arm telcos into cutting off access, making it seem like the war against internet censorship is one that can’t be won, but can it?

Sambuli reckons the war can be won on multiple fronts.

“For one, we must assess the legal provisions that could be leveraged to justify shutdowns or censorship on the internet, and push back against these,” she says.

“Secondly, internet censorship is just as political an issue as it is technical and legal; it signifies the continuing fight of citizens’ rights and freedoms versus the state’s obligations and setup. It is not a fight about the internet alone, and citizens’ wins will largely draw from building stronger movements that marry the ‘analog’ and the ‘digital’ battles for our rights and freedoms.”

Sambuli also emphasises that it’s also important to engage telcos as allies as they don’t usually want to shut down the internet as it eats into their revenue.

“At the very least, companies should publicly share how many shutdown requests they have received and what they have done to push back against them,” she says.

Could SA ever see an internet shutdown?

In 2015, during President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address, mobile network signals were blocked via a jamming device, resulting in journalists and attendees not being able to liveblog the event on social media.

While this is not close to a complete internet shutdown, could it be a pointer to the possibility of it happening in South Africa, one of the continent biggest champions of internet freedom?

“For now, it seems unlikely that South Africa would resort to an internet shutdown if faced with dissent – the country’s constitution is clear, there is a strong judiciary and active civil society,” Sambuli says.

“The draft ICT white paper released last year also explicitly states South Africa’s commitment to the principle that ‘The internet must remain a unified global network that is stable, secure, resilient, trustworthy, reliable, interconnected and accessible to all users across the world'”.

“That said, there are some worrying signs. Parliament illegally jammed cellphone signals during SONA, and South Africa was one of a few countries to vote against a landmark UN resolution on internet freedoms – joining countries such as Russia and China who are well-known for their control of information online. South Africans need to remain vigilant and hold the government to account,” Sambuli says.