Behind the scenes: Weaponising throttling

How Throttling Works/CREDIT: Center for International Media Assistance
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The digital revolution has changed how humans live, work, and interact with one another. So too has digital authoritarianism. Attempts have been made to recognise Internet access as being intricately linked to fundamental human rights like freedom of speech because of how critical it is to access and share information online on matters of public interest. These attempts are also fuelled by a desire to counter autocratic governments and authoritarian regimes in Africa that perceive the internet as a threat to their power – as something to be controlled.

Yet we are still a long way away from achieving this goal, and as a result the digital rights of Africans remain under threat from a wide range of startegies and tecniques.

One shutdown technique gradually gaining prominence is bandwidth throttling. This entails limiting or capping Internet speeds, rather than shutting the Internet off completely. When bandwidth capabilities are reduced to unusable speeds, activities such as sharing videos and live feeds become impossible. Internet service providers (ISPs) have been known to restrict the Internet speeds of their customers for legitimate reasons, including reducing network congestion, data capping and restricting access to forbidden or illegal sites due to copyright infringement.

When governments do it, however, it is usually for other reasons – such as to undermine opposition movements, control elections, and prevent citizens from sharing information. This is especially the case with governments that enjoy a tight grip on ISPs. 

In Ethiopia, for example, Ethio Telecom (largely owned by the state) has used this tactic to restrict individuals from accessing various sites – many of them social media platforms – to limit the spread of information. For the two years spanning from November 2020 to December 2022, phone and internet services in Ethiopia’s Tigray region were suspended.

In 2021, there were 10 instances of throttling in at least eight countries, including Russia, India, Iran, Uganda, Myanmar, Jordan, Iraq and Algeria. During the 2021 presidential election, Uganda deployed throttling alongside other methods to try and neuter the liberatory potential of the Internet. Most notably, telecommunications regulator, the Uganda Communications Commission, ordered the suspension of all Internet gateways – a move that was a direct response to Facebook taking down various pro-government accounts.

The increasing number of throttling incidences around the world is likely down to the difficulty of detecting them. Unlike other shutdown methods, which are often high profile and controversial, it is less obvious that throttling is being used to stifle political debate. While citizens will notice when specific websites have been blocked or physical infrastructure dismantled, throttling allows users to access sites, but at much slower speeds. It can therefore be mistaken for an accident, or the Internet just “having a bad day”, especially in countries with limited telecommunication infrastructure networks, where slower speeds are common.

This can ultimately frustrate citizens, who give up trying to access sites where they may, for example, have hoped to access unfiltered news. It can also chill civil society and popular communication, and hence mobilisation. Many protests have been built on sharing information via the Internet. Across Africa, governments, like in Sudan in 2018 and 2019, that want to quell or reduce any anti-government movements will therefore quickly look for ways to exert control over the Internet. Throttling currently represents the most feasible way to this with less risk of detection.

A common assumption is that stated-owned companies are at the forefront of limiting bandwidth, but private companies are also complicit – albeit in response to consistent pressure from government. Indeed, as a form of internet shutdown, throttling demonstrates just how much power governments wield over ISPs. In many cases this weaknesses is underpinned by private organisations reliance on state agencies to issue licenses to operate, which is often a convoluted process in which having good relations to the government is an essential criteria to being allowed to operate and make money.

Fig 1: How Throttling Works

How Throttling Works/CREDIT: Center for International Media Assistance

Source: Center for International Media Assistance

As a form of internet shutdown, throttling has and will continue to peg back the gains made by digital rights advocates and those who hope that the Internet will play a role in strengthening democratic participation. It severely violates basic human rights including the right to expression, assembly and to receive information. Often deployed at a time of political and democratic significance, its use means that the people do not get to make informed choices about key policies and matters of public interest, and often compromises their ability to assemble and discuss political issues both online and in-person.

Moving forward, more needs to be done to ensure people understand how throttling works, how it can be detected and what can be done to keep governments so that citizens can enjoy their basic digital, and human, rights. in check and consolidate democracy and key fundamental rights.

Wilson Wahome is a lawyer who specializes in digital rights and intellectual property and is based in Nairobi, Kenya. He is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and a graduate of the Lawyers Hub Kenya Tech Policy Fellowship. Currently, he consults for Gikera and Vadgama Advocates on Intellectual Property and Anti-counterfeit.

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