Internet access is a powerful tool that can improve people’s livelihoods by promoting freedom of speech and protecting human rights. However, many African governments are taking steps in preventing people from participating online by shutting down the internet and restricting citizens' access to the internet.
The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)report on Despots and Disruption defined an internet shutdown as “the intentional blockage of access to the internet or sections of the internet such as social media platforms. Internet disruptions ordered by governments eager to disrupt communications and curtail citizens’ access to information to limit what the citizens can see, do, or communicate”. CIPESA aims to enable policymakers to understand digital technologies and for various stakeholders to use these technologies to improve governance and livelihoods.
Tomiwa IIori, a researcher at the Centre of Human Rights, says most internet shutdowns occur during protests and elections. He explains that governments claim that the shutting down of the internet is in the interest of the public or a response to threats to public security such as civil unrest. IIori says that governments use shutdowns “as a pretext to hide gross violations of human rights”.
Human rights violations are common in countries with long-serving rulers, “who are clinging onto power, they find the power of the internet very invasive and threatening to their grasp of political power,” says IIori. The more authoritarian the system, the more likely the government is to shut down the internet during elections or political unrest.
Felicia Anthonhio, a campaigner at Access Now, a non-profit organisation that defends people’s digital rights around the world echoes Illori’s thoughts. “Most countries would normally justify these shutdowns as a measure to curb misinformation, disinformation or hate speech, but these shutdowns are imposed to silence dissent and to stop protests,” says Anthonhio.
The impact of these internet shutdowns
Anthonio says, “internet shutdowns generally violate fundamental human rights and freedoms of people”. These freedoms are of opinion, expression, assembly and association, which socio-economic rights such as education, health and the ability to work.
IIori says that when the internet is shut down, citizens are denied the opportunity to participate in “online life” to improve their standard of living and further help protect their human rights. He explains that many people in today’s society work online and when the internet is shut down, it affects people’s socio-economic rights, the right to work”. Socio-economic rights are human rights that allow people to participate fully in society. For example, people rely on information from the internet, such as during the pandemic, people use the internet to get the latest information on covid cases and news.
“If human rights are constantly violated due to internet shutdowns, it also means democratic development stalls,” says IIori.
He explains “human rights protection is one of the most important indicators of democratic development”. Adding that “democracies should better lives and one of such ways is through fulfilling human rights online which are violated when internet shutdowns occur.”
Types of Internet shutdowns and VPN interventions
There are two types of shutdowns: complete shutdowns and partial shutdowns. Complete shutdowns are a total internet blackout, there is no internet access and partial shutdowns, specific websites or social media platforms are blocked.
Anthonhio says during partial shutdowns, out of desperation, people use VPNs (a virtual private network)’s to try to access these blocked platforms. A VPN allows users online privacy and anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection.
However, this results in people overlooking security measures and results in people endangering their lives and risk being singled out by their governments, which may be monitoring the internet.
VPN’s allow people to use the internet privately and access restricted websites. In Tanzania, VPN use is illegal, which limits people’s ability to stay anonymous online. According to Global Voices during the countries’ elections in 2020, the Tanzanian government restricted access to internet services and social media such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. On the eve of the elections, the internet was intentionally slowed down which is known as “throttling”. Throttling is when internet service providers intentionally speed up or slow down the internet connection.
Shutdowns during elections
“Elections are like a red alert period,” says IIori.
Sandra Aceng, program manager at the Women of Uganda Network, says that the government shut down the internet days before the Ugandan Presidential elections in January 2021. “This time, it felt different as it was a total blackout. It felt lonely,” says Aceng. Adding that “even the news reported by the state broadcaster was a little bit of censorship.” She noted that many people living in the capital city left to vote in their villages out of fear that there would be violence if the elections didn’t go as intended.
Aceng says Uganda has a history of internet shutdowns, it has had four shutdowns in 2006, 2011, 2016, but the one in 2021 was different because it was a total blackout. In 2006, particular online publications or websites that criticised the president, the government temporarily blocked. In 2011, the government blocked SMS messages that contain specific words. In 2016, a blockage happened twice; days before the elections, the government blocked social and mobile money services over reasons such as national security. During the swearing-in of the president, social media platforms were blocked.
During internet shutdowns, citizens are denied the right to participate during the electoral process, and that is undemocratic, says Anthonhio. Adding that “shutdowns question the credibility and transparency of elections as journalists, human rights defenders and election observer groups are not able to monitor and report on the election process”.
Based on the trends, she said it does not seem likely that the shutdowns will stop anytime soon. In 2020, access Now documented 155 internet shutdowns compared to 213 in 2019. However, Anthonhio explained that the reduction was due to the pandemic and the restrictions governments imposed, which meant that people could not protest. Some elections were rescheduled for this year. Adding that the triggers of shutdowns are protests and elections since both activities couldn’t happen due to the pandemic reducing the number of shutdowns.
“Governments should rather invest in the internet than shutting it down,” says Anthonhio.
Civic Tech platform that reports digital rights violations
“Digital rights are just as fundamental as all other human rights,” said ‘Gbenga Sesan, Director of Paradigm Initiative, an organisation that works to connect underserved young Africans with digital opportunities and ensures protection of their rights.
Paradigm Initiative launched a new tool, Ripoti, on 30 April 2021 that allows Africans to report on violations of digital rights, connecting them with experts who can help them seek justice. Sesan said in a statement that “we have seen a worrying increase in digital rights violations across Africa. Until now, citizens have had no easy way to protect their rights by tracking and reporting these violations. Ripoti empowers them to do that”.
Sesan explained that “citizens’ rights to express themselves online and offline and gather and disseminate information and ideas are critical to the fate of democracy in Africa”.