How and Why Internet Shutdowns Threaten Democracy in Africa

Internet shutdowns in Africa
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Today we launch a new series on Internet shutdowns and control in Africa, with ten great new insights from authors from across the continent and beyond. To see the content page, click here. We will be putting up new contributions every couple of days so please check back regularly for more!

The last decade has witnessed a global shift in the communication methods used by ordinary citizens. Modern-day methods, including digital communication through social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram, are becoming more popular than traditional means of communication, like radio, print media and mobile text messages.

One reason for this trend is that social media enables people to tell stories more quickly and easily than ever before. Anyone with an internet connection, whether on a cell phone or a computer, can disseminate information.

This new power has alarmed repressive governments across the globe, many of which have moved to restrict or block the flow of information, especially during times of political tension. This includes some governments in Africa, a region home to more than a headful of authoritarian regimes that have little qualms about limiting freedom of expression, including that expressed through online channels.

The clash of disruptive technology and censorious regimes represents a major test for democracy. While digital communication methods have transformed and expanded spaces for political debate, they have also brought about a new form of repression: Internet shutdowns. This also includes mobile phone network shutdowns, signal jamming, content censorship, and surveillance. Governments at various times in recent years have been able to restrict or block the dissemination of information they perceive as a threat to their legitimacy. This new series represents an attempt to understand how this challenge for democracy is playing out in the African context, and what lessons we can learn from the story so far.

In Africa, reports of Internet shutdowns are on the rise. Many of these reports rely on a simple definition of an internet shutdown, which is “an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information”. However, to better understand exactly how governments can limit media freedoms in the digital age, we must go beyond just stating what a shutdown is to understand how it is implemented. Who are the actors at play? How is the Internet blocked and are there ways that such blockages can be circumvented? What happens when information is limited during a critical political period but there doesn’t immediately appear to be a shutdown? How can we improve our understanding of this relatively new phenomenon, especially since it is unlikely to decrease in frequency over the coming years?

We argue that we need to adopt a broader understanding of what constitutes a shutdown, to include aspects such as “throttling” and the deliberate fostering of a weak infrastructure, all of which also have the effect of undermining access to the Internet. These approaches are often preferred by autocrats precisely because they are more subtle but are often overlooked in media commentary and analysis. This series fills this gap by adopting a broader understanding of what it means to block access to the Internet.

The series is divided into three sections, which all tackle a different aspect of moving towards this new and evolving understanding. The first section helps to identify a shutdown, expanding the current definition. In ‘Digitocracy: Situating Shutdowns in a conceptual digital framework’, series co-editor Mwai Daka considers that which constitutes a fundamental infrastructure shutdown and how this impacts political participation during major protests or election periods, drawing on an example from Malawi. Daka proposes a litmus test that could determine if such a shutdown has indeed taken place. This is followed by ‘Behind the scenes: Weaponising throttling’, in which Wilson Wahome examines how governments reduce bandwidth speeds to limit information sharing online, in turn stifling political debate on social media platforms.

In ‘Access denied: How limited internet connectivity erodes democracy’, Jimmy Kainja argues that the impact that the reluctance of governments to improve connectivity, or to create meaningful connectivity, prevents certain sections of society from accessing the internet at all – including being able to use all key tools such as uploading videos or watch livestreams of events. He postulates that in some cases this should be perceived as intentional and thus a type of internet shutdown.

The second part of the series considers how surveillance and retribution manifests in the African context, highlighting less-talked-about techniques to limit online participation. In ‘A new anti-democratic tool: The Deep Packet Inspection technique’, Gideon Ogunniye postulates that in their quest for control, African leaders are implementing sophisticated forms of surveillance techniques, enabling them to monitor internet traffic and content data. This is followed by ‘Signal interrupted: When state security goes rogue’ by series co-editor Marisa Lourenço, who considers that technological tools to guard national security – such as signal jamming devices to disrupt drones flown by nefarious actors, such as terrorist groups – could be manipulated by governments wanting to block information, to the detriment of civil society. 

In ‘Tightening the noose on public dissent: Rwanda’s internet policy’, Louis Gitinywa examines a series of measures that have seen ICT-related legislation and government policies become tools to implement online surveillance and digital policing – a practice that is increasingly common in Rwanda. ‘Digital authoritarianism: The Sudan playbook’ by Attalo Alvin unpacks the practice of domain name system manipulation – a tool used to redirect traffic and ultimately prevent the dissemination of information, often to subvert political debate.

The third section of the series tentatively examines how we move forward with this newfound knowledge. In ‘Understanding how shutdowns work helps us guard against them’, Nompilo Simanje offers a start, emphasising the importance of protecting freedom of expression and ultimately fundamental human rights. Other contributions also have clear implications for how we can promote genuine Internet access. Returning to Kainja’s argument, this will include expanding access to citizens who currently cannot access a sufficiently strong signal, or cannot afford data. It will also mean highlighting practices such as throttling, and sharing knowledge about how they can be circumvented – for example, using VPNs or as Mojirayo asserts, setting out legal grounds for shutdowns.

More broadly, we need to see civil society groups, democratically committed leaders and international partners pushing to changes to the law to make Internet shutdowns of any kind illegal – or at the very last introducing strict limitations on when such policies can be implemented. Until this is done, Internet access will continue to be a privilege rather than a right.

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

Marisa Lourenço (@marisalourenco) is a political analyst based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her analysis on developments in Africa is regularly featured in local and international media. She currently works as an independent consultant advising organisations operating in the southern Africa subregion.

Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is the Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and the founder of Democracy in Africa.

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