Digitocracy: Situating Shutdowns in a conceptual digital framework

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The buzzwords “national blackouts” “partial blackouts” or “kill switch” are synonymous with internet shutdowns across the globe. However, these terms do little to inform us of the techniques used to implement blackouts. An effective national blackout requires various methods and techniques in states that have diversified their network and internet infrastructure. We need to know these details because they tell us about who was responsible for blackouts, and how they were enacted. In 2019, for example, Zimbabwe’s Minister of State Owen Ncube issued orders to Internet Service Providers (ISP) under the Interception of Communications Act (ICA) 2007 to shutdown internet access across all networks across the country. Internet access was therefore curtailed through a government directive, rather than a technical solution.

Why these distinctions matter can be seen from what happened next. The High Court of Zimbabwe subsequently ruled that a nation shutdown was not authorized under the ICA because the legislation only deals with interception of communication and not the shutdown or suspension of Internet services. Legal hurdles therefore ultimately prevented the government from going ahead. It is also important to be specific about what is being turned off and how because citizens have many means of communication available to them. An Internet blackout, for example, may not prevent people from communicating using Short Messaging Services (SMS).

Where online access is concerned, the most problematic government approach is what Access Now have described as the Fundamental Infrastructure Shutdown (FIS) technique. This entails authorities powering off cell towers and power grids or soliciting third parties loyal to a specific regime to cause physical damage to what I conceptualise as Fundamental Digital Public and Private Telecommunication Infrastructure (FDPPTI). As Kainja argues in his contribution to this series, government failure to develop digital infrastructure means that online access is often held together by fragile systems with multiple weak points. In turn, this can make it easier for a small number of attacks to bring the system down. The same set of countries typically have weak legal systems to protect the right to Internet and media access more generally.

A good example is the Malawian 2019 elections, when numerous Internet Service Providers (ISPs) lost Internet connection during the transmission of results. Many believe that this was done to try and prevent observers from sharing images of doctored results sheets in what became known as the “Tipp-ex election”, but the outage actually went unnoticed until ordinary citizens noticed that some radios in the southern region of Malawi had gone off air during the same time period.

It is in weak FDPPTI contexts such as Malawi that the FIS technique is most effective. A “maximal” attack is both procedural and technological:

  • Procedural: shutdowns based on government directives, legislation, and political coercion like denial of media licenses.
  • Technological: shutdowns that involve the use of technology to implement digital shutdowns such as internet routing; Domain Name System (DNS) manipulation; Digital Filtering; Deep Packet Inspection (DPI); Digital Rogue Infrastructure Attacks (DRIA); Digital Denial of Service (DDoS); and, Digital Bandwidth Throttling.

Due to the difficulty in discerning government involvement from poor infrastructure or criminality, it is useful to apply a kind of litmus test to determine if disruption or destruction to communication falls under the FIS technique. Analysts should:

  1. Follow both political and legal processes and efforts to understand government motivations.
  2. Consider which platforms and services have been hit, and which have been allowed to remain operating – and who this benefits.
  3. Assess whether some services have been slowed down rather than simply pulled down, in order to make the intervention less conspicuous.
  4. Examine the manner of destruction/sabotage to communication infrastructure, and compare this against past incidents.
  5. Look at the time of the incident in relation to major events like presidential elections, polling days, or major protests.
  6. Be careful to study the context. For example, if the sabotage is in proximity to a potentially major event like a planned protest, political rally, or polling station.

This offers a useful guide to identifying whether this element of the FIS shutdown technique was implemented with the aim of undermining civic participation online or via the use of electronic devices. As we have seen over the last few years, the FIS technique can be highly effective at disrupting digitocracy – the use of digital technology to promote accountability, transparency, and political inclusion.

It is also important to keep in mind that these different techniques often intersect, in the sense that the use of one technique may also involve the use of other strategies in order to maximize effectiveness. For example, the introduction of DRIA technology to jam transmission signals may go hand-in-hand with physical attacks on core FDPPTI such as cell towers; the power grid; and deep-sea cables providing nationwide internet connection.

In turn, these strategies are often used alongside non-shutdown strategies that are designed to target specific individuals and groups of particular importance. For example, an FIS approach will often involve efforts to surveille and disrupt the political opposition, journalists, civil society groups, and government critics. These strategies may also involve a combination of legal efforts, such as trumped up criminal charges, and technological techniques, such as the use of Pegasus Spyware and other forms of spyware. In this sense, if we understand the FIS in its broadest sense, it can also be understood to refer to efforts to prevent specific targets from exercising their democratic rights. Take the experience of the Ugandan exiled author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who was awarded the 2021 PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage. According to Rukirabashaija, his phone was traced and hacked – something that was only possible because by law he had to register his sim card.

In our efforts to counteract undemocratic interference with the digital rights of African citizens, it is therefore critically important that we avoid using blanket terms and that we think carefully about the relationship between different strategies of digital interference. It is also critical that we recognise the capacity of some rogue states to implement the full FIS model – and in doing so, to undermine the transformative potential of digital technology.

Mwai Daka(@MwaiDaka) is a PhD student at the University of Gloucestershire in the department of Politics and International Relations. His research looks at freedom of expression and internet shutdowns in sub-Saharan Africa

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