Understanding how shutdowns work helps us guard against them

Computer Network Map/CREDIT: Kontek Brothers/iStock
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Governments in Africa have typically used a handful of techniques to restrict access to the internet.   This article focuses on routing. But what is routing?

Routing involves manipulating network routes via the Internet or telecommunications software to disrupt the flow of information. It involves altering information at key points in the network infrastructure – like international gateways – to stop the flow of traffic to other infrastructure necessary for communication. Partial shutdowns – wherein access to certain websites is blocked – can be implemented in this way.

Routing also involves instructing key routers to null the route, which means that all traffic to and from unique global identifiers for internet protocol ranges within a country are dropped instead of being forwarded onto the next stop in their communication journey.

This typically results in a total shutdown. So when is routing used, and what consequences does it have?

The case of Gabon

The government in Gabon has previously used the routing method as reported in the Access Now 2022 report: A taxonomy of internet shutdowns: The technologies behind network interferences. This was during a coup attempt, in which military officers sought to oust President Ali Bongo, who has ruled the small West African nation since 2009 and whose 2016 electoral win was popularly contested.

Officers briefly overtook the state broadcasting offices, calling on citizens to “rise up”. The failed attempt was over the following day. Internet Outage and Detection Analysis (IODA) data shows that around 75% of Gabon’s internet protocol (IP) address space was withdrawn for 28 hours between 7 and 8 January.

The case of Benin

In 2019, Benin experienced an Internet shutdown during its parliamentary elections which is reported to have lasted for almost 24 hours. Netblocks reported that this shutdown started off as a partial shutdown with only social media networks and communications apps blocked then later on became a total internet shutdown.

Following the Internet shutdown, civil society organisations under the #KeepItOn coalition wrote an open letter to the Beninese government, calling on them to restore access to the internet. Other organisations like Amnesty International also built on the foundation of the open letter, to release their organisational press statements on the same issue.

This shutdown was criticised for being a violation to free expression as it would result in the silencing of human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers monitoring the election.

How to respond?

To mitigate the effects of routing, alternative telecommunications infrastructure is necessary – such as satellite uplinks. Virtual private networks (VPNs) can also be used as circumvention tools, especially if linked to a different country. The catch is, of course, that such infrastructure or software must be in place before a shutdown.

Beyond practical tools, it is critical for stakeholders interested in the intersection between technology and human rights to utilise existing tools for monitoring, tracking and documenting internet shutdowns. Such tools include the IODA and the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) Probe. IODA is an operational prototype system that monitors the internet in near real-time to identify macroscopic Internet outages affecting the edge of the network. OONI Probe is a free and open-source software that is designed to measure internet censorship and any other forms of network interference.

These tools are known to be sources of reliable information on Internet shutdowns. They are therefore critical in providing evidence of Internet restrictions, information that can be used by civil society actors to lead advocacy engagements – such as utilising regional platforms like the African Commission on Human and People’ Rights and also public interest litigation at national and regional courts.

Accountability is key

While governments are the key perpetrators of Internet shutdowns it should be noted that in most cases within the region, governments give directives to Internet service providers or mobile network operators for purposes of enforcement. Private players in the telecommunications industry have therefore been also identified as perpetrators.

This is because routing decisions of telecommunications companies play a key role in determining Internet freedom, censorship, and online surveillance – whether they like it or not. In this way, then, it is necessary to identify the private sector as partners in any advocacy work against shutdowns.

Between now and 2024, about 32 countries have elections approaching, which is also an indicator of the imminent possibility of Internet shutdowns, particularly in Zimbabwe, Eswatini, Togo, Nigeria, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo, all of which have a history using similar strategies. Advocacy interventions against Internet shutdowns should therefore be a continuous process that prioritises varying interventions to tackle various forms of limited or no access to the Internet.

Nompilo Simanje is the Legal and ICT Policy Officer at the Media Institute of Southern Africa and a current fellow of the Open Internet for Democracy Leaders Program. She also serves in the Advisory Board of the Global Forum on Cybersecurity Expertise.

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