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Africa Internet: where and how do governments block it?

Cases of countries restricting internet access are increasing

No Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp.

This is becoming more and more common in some African countries, where governments have sometimes closed or restricted the internet and access to social media platforms.

Uganda is the latest country to do so in the run-up to the January 14 presidential election.

Digital rights activists say it’s censorship, but governments argue it helps maintain security.

How does blocking work?

A government can restrict access by ordering Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict access to their subscribers.

Voters line up at a polling station in Kampala, Uganda.
Ugandan presidential elections see restricted internet access

In the first case, it is probably a blockage on commonly used social media sites.

As a more extreme measure, authorities can order service providers to block all Internet access.

In Uganda, for example, online users initially reported having difficulty accessing certain apps and sites.

The government then ordered service providers to block social media platforms and then told them to block all internet connectivity on the eve of election day on January 14.

Report from Internet monitoring organization Netblocks this connectivity has dropped dramatically in Uganda as a result.

How many countries have blocked access?

The cases of Internet shutdowns in Africa are increasing.

Tanzania restricted access to the internet and social media applications during the October 2020 elections.

In June of the same year, Ethiopia imposed an Internet shutdown that lasted almost a month after the unrest following the murder of prominent Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa.

Zimbabwe, Togo, Burundi, Chad, Mali, and Guinea have also restricted access to the internet or social media apps at some point in 2020.

In 2019, there were 25 documented cases of partial or total internet shutdowns, up from 20 in 2018 and 12 in 2017, according to Access Now, an independent watchdog.

Internet shutdowns in Africa.  .  This includes full outages, social media shutdowns, and throttling.
Internet shutdowns in Africa. . This includes complete blackouts, social media shutdowns, and throttling.

And the group says that in 2019, seven of the 14 countries that blocked access had not done so in the previous two years (these were Benin, Gabon, Eritrea, Liberia, from Malawi, Mauritania and Zimbabwe.)

This is part of a global trend, where more and more countries are restricting internet access.

The group says that in Africa most lockdowns tend to affect entire countries as opposed to specific regions or groups of people.

In 2019, 21 of the 25 closures recorded by the group concerned entire countries or most regions of the country.

Only Sudan and Ethiopia had targeted closures.

‘Server not found’

In each country, it is up to individual service providers to carry out instructions from the authorities to block access.

One method used is known as URL-based blocking, which is a filter that prevents access to a list of banned sites.

A user trying to access these sites may see various messages such as “server not found” or “this site has been blocked by the network administrator”.

Protests in Zimbabwe
Internet access was tightly controlled during protests in Zimbabwe

Another method is called limiting.

This drastically limits traffic to specific sites, making the service appear slow, discouraging access.

It’s more subtle because it’s hard to know if sites are actively restricted or if poor broadband infrastructure is to blame.

Finally, telecommunications companies may be forced to shut down their services altogether, preventing access.

Can service providers say no?

The ability of governments to censor the Internet depends on their ability to exercise control over telecommunications companies.

Internet service providers are licensed by governments, which means they risk fines or the loss of their contracts.

A Kenyan girl using a smartphone
More and more people own a smartphone in African countries

Operators may have the right to appeal to the courts, but in practice they rarely do so.

However, there were exceptions.

In 2019, Zimbabwe’s courts ruled in favor of restoring internet access after the government ordered restrictions.

In response, the government has introduced new regulations allowing them greater control over the internet.

Zimbabwe’s Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said this “will ensure that the Internet and related technologies are used for the good of society and not to violate national security.”

There are also examples where governments wishing to shut down the network have an easier task.

Dawit Bekele, director of the Internet Society’s Africa regional office, points to Ethiopia where, he says, “there is a de facto single gateway owned by the government operator that can easily be used to block the Internet.”

A man in Kinshasa holding a phone
Internet shutdowns are more and more frequent, as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Unless internet access has been completely shut down, there are ways for individuals to work around these barriers.

The most common method is using virtual private networks (VPNs). These data paths are encrypted, making it difficult for service providers to block access to restricted sites.

Governments can also block VPNs, although they are less inclined to do so as it can seriously hamper foreign diplomats and the big companies that use them as they provide additional security.

Some African governments have indicated that the rise of “fake news” online was a reason for enforcing the restrictions.

But some analysts and opposition figures see this as an excuse to suppress groups critical of the government, which often organize on Facebook and WhatsApp.

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