NewsWest AfricaAfrican rulers' weapon against web-based dissent: the off switch


Posted on Tuesday, 17 October 2017 11:22

African rulers' weapon against web-based dissent: the off switch

By Reuters

Management student Ndeye Mane Toure, uses an internet meeting site at a cyber cafe in Dakar, Senegal,  2006. Photo: REBECCA BLACKWELL/AP/SIPALong-standing African rulers fearful of popular protest and the use of social media to spread information are using various methods to shut down the internet to overcome their tech-savvy opponents, in a growing threat to democracy and economic activity in some of the world's poorest countries.


After undergoing a three month internet shutdown, people in Cameroon's restive Anglophone region celebrated when the service was restored in April this year.


Cameroonian forces had previously cracked down on demonstrators in the English-speaking region, who were protesting against the predominantly French-speaking government of President Paul Biya.


Efforts by governments across Africa to deliberately sever online access to silence dissent over various issues has been seen on the continent lately, borrowing methods used for years in other parts of the world.


Since the start of 2016, governments in 13 African nations have intentionally shut down the internet on 21 occasions, mainly during elections and protests, according to a database run by online rights group Access Now.

That compares to seven shutdowns in the previous two years.


Rapidly expanding access to the internet across Africa is helping grassroots opposition movements take on once-invulnerable regimes.

Rights group Internet Without Borders says cutting access is a violation of international law and defies a July 2016 U.N. resolution affirming that "the same rights that people have off-line must also be protected online."


Economic losses

According to a yearly report from Freedom House, Internet freedom world-wide declined for the sixth consecutive year last year.

Social media was the main target.


Critics say that infringes not just the rights of individuals but also undermines the burgeoning economies of some of the world's poorest countries.

Still, rulers are convinced of the effectiveness.


Gabon's President Ail Bongo shut down all Internet access for days after a violent reaction to his contested election win last year.


Gambia's former president Yahya Jammeh did the same during elections in December, as did Togo President Faure Gnassingbe amid opposition riots last month.

On each occasion, no reason was given for the shutdowns.


Internet cuts cost tiny Togo $300,000 per day, according to estimates from Access Now, a blow for a country where the per capita GDP is just $578.


The impact on Cameroon's economy by the three-month outage earlier this year is unknown, but business owners were hit hard.


Internet cuts in Africa date back to the Arab Spring when rulers in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya sought to control the spread of information.


The intent is the same now, but the methods have evolved. With the help of Internet Service Providers, governments can slow Internet speed by reducing bandwidth, known as "throttling" or cut access to specific sites like Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp by "filtering" unwanted sites.


Governments can order telecommunications companies to cut access to mobile customers.

This can be done with varying degrees of ease.


Although free apps like VPN Monster and Turbo VPN can circumvent filtering using VPNs which mask the location of a computer or phone, even a VPN won't help you if you don't have an internet connection in the first place.


In Ethiopia, the government shut off the internet this year to prevent a leak of exams after papers were posted online last year, by activists fighting for the rights of the Oromo people who said a police crackdown on protests against plans to requisition land in their region had interrupted studies.


Internet shutdowns in Sub-Saharan Africa have cost the region up to $237m in economic losses since 2015, according to a recent report by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa.


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