In this open access report, EXX Africa assesses the risk of internet shutdowns and online media restrictions in 2019, identifying the countries and operators most at risk of commercial disruption over the coming year.
So far in 2019, there have been internet shutdowns in at least five African countries, most prominently in Zimbabwe, as well as in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gabon, Cameroon, and Sudan. The rate of internet shutdowns has steadily increased over the past few years. According to global digital rights group Access Now, there were 21 shutdowns across Africa last year, up from 13 in 2017. Togo, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia, and Egypt were among the countries implementing connectivity restrictions over the past two years. Cameroon’s Anglophone regions spent 230 days without internet access between January 2017 and March 2018.
In this open access special report, EXX Africa assesses the circumstances of recent internet shutdowns and identifies the African countries where the risk of outages will be highest over the course of 2019. This report also assesses the commercial and economic impact of internet shutdowns and the technical processes involved in shutting down an entire country’s connectivity.
PRECEDENT AND LEGAL JUSTIFICATION
While the practice of shutting down the internet is nothing new in Africa, the frequency and duration of shutdowns is steadily increasing. During the 2011 Arab Spring, North African governments regularly orchestrated shutdowns of connectivity and social media. Between 2015 and 2016, most instances of internet shutdowns occurred in West and Central Africa, in countries such as Mali, Chad, Gabon, Republic of Congo, and DRC. Since 2017, the practice has become more common in East Africa and southern Africa.
Governments usually implement these shutdowns through order requests sent to Internet Service Providers (ISP) or telecommunications operators, some of which may be government-owned. Shutdowns are easier to achieve in countries with few ISPs, unlike South Africa which has more than a hundred internet providers. The legal basis of such order requests lies in the contracts that ISPs sign with the communication regulator in each country. Usually, the regulator will have the power to order ISPs to restrict access to the internet or block social media apps at the regulator’s request.
The implementation of such order requests may create a total internet blackout (as most recently in Zimbabwe), or a restriction of access to certain websites, specifically social media (as in Cameroon), or the throttling of bandwidth (as in Sudan). Sometimes, domain name servers can be manipulated to send traffic away from intended destinations and toward servers controlled by the government. African governments have depended on tested practices in China to censor the internet. China is heavily involved in Africa’s internet, with state-backed firms like Huawei and ZTE building internet backbones and other infrastructure for many African countries.
According to Access Now, the top three reasons given for internet shutdowns are public safety, stopping the spreading of illegal content, and national security. However, the legal justification for internet shutdowns is often vague or non-existent. Some governments have in the past denied issuing order requests to ISPs and have instead blamed technical problems, although ISPs are becoming more transparent in announcing government-ordered shutdowns. African governments increasingly link their orders to the necessity to protect the public order, particularly during election cycles or bouts of civil or military unrest.
While internet shutdowns may often violate domestic law, the international legal framework remains vague and relies on assurances protecting the right to freedom of expression or UN Guiding principles on Business and Human Rights. In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council released a non-binding resolution condemning intentional disruption of internet access by governments. The resolution reaffirmed that ‘the same rights people have offline must also be protected online.’ However, the non-binding nature of the UN resolution, as well as entrenched internet censorship by countries such as China, has hampered attempts to implement broader prevention of internet shutdowns by governments.
In the absence of a clear framework governing the right to internet access, African governments will maintain their responsibility to protect the public order or to curb ‘fake news’. The below case studies are aimed at finding patterns on internet shutdowns in Africa and to assess the commercial impact of shutdowns.
‘TOTAL’ INTERNET SHUTDOWN IN ZIMBABWE
On 21 January, the High Court said Zimbabwe’s government exceeded its mandate in ordering an internet blackout during recent civilian protests and ordered mobile operators to immediately and unconditionally resume full services. Zimbabwe’s biggest mobile phone operator Econet Wireless subsequently restored all internet and social media services. The sporadic internet blackout was ordered by Security Minister Owen Ncube on 15 January following the start of often violent protests against high fuel prices (See ZIMBABWE: POLITICAL DIVISIONS TAKE HOSTAGE AN ALREADY DISTRESSED ECONOMY).
Many people were left without access to social media platforms and email amid accusations that the government wanted to prevent images of its heavy-handedness from being broadcast around the world. Zimbabwe’s millions-strong diaspora raised the attention of the world to the internet blackout through various social media campaigns that were picked up by traditional media and triggered criticism from foreign governments, such as the UK.
While some internet users sought out virtual private networks (VPN) to bypass the controls, Zimbabwe’s shutdown did cut off crucial access to electronic bank deposits. The cash-strapped government uses such transfers to pay public sector workers, such as teachers, who were already on strike. Moreover, electronic remittances from the large Zimbabwean diaspora were also affected, further exacerbating Zimbabwe’s economic and financial crisis.
Some estimates assess that the shutdown will cost the country USD 5.7 million per day in direct economic costs. However, the widespread international condemnation of the Zimbabwean internet shutdown and the judicial ruling that the service order to ISPs was illegal does mitigate further risk of internet restrictions in 2019.
See Country Outlook: Zimbabwe
SOCIAL MEDIA RESTRICTIONS IN DRC ELECTION CYCLE
The government of DRC President Joseph Kabila shut down internet and text messaging services ahead of and following disputed elections in December, claiming to preserve public order after ‘fictitious results’ were circulated on social media. The government warned of ‘chaos’ in case unofficial results were published on the internet or social media. Diplomats from the US, European Union, Canada, and Switzerland criticised the internet shutdown. The shutdown heightened fears of electoral fraud in presidential and legislative elections that were already marred by delays and violence (See DRC: TENSE PROTRACTED ELECTORAL CYCLE FINALLY COMES TO CONCLUSION).
Data leaked from the state’s electoral commission unambiguously contradicted the official results, triggering a dispute over the election results. The leaked data covers over 80 percent of the votes cast in the 30 December general election and closely matches voting data gathered independently by a parallel vote tabulation held by the Catholic bishops’ organisation, as well as three recent polls.
Internet provider Global and telecom operator Vodacom said that they had cut web access on government orders, although some NGOs claim that interruption to connectivity was being carried out at the discretion of commercial operators. Congolese authorities specifically targeted social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, and Skype in order to hamper communication among protesters, while allowing businesses and banks to operate as usual. Nevertheless, disruption to mobile communications was widespread. The economic cost of a shutdown in DRC is estimated at USD3 million per day. The DRC’s restrictions on internet connectivity were similar to those that occurred in recent elections in Mali and Equatorial Guinea, as well as those that followed an attempted military coup in Gabon in early January.
See Country Outlook: DRC
TANZANIA CRACKS DOWN ON ONLINE MEDIA
Some African countries have extended authoritarian practices to the online media sector by amending local legal frameworks. Tanzania’s government is a relevant case study since its implementation of the Electronic and Postal Communications Online Content Regulations Act in March 2018. The new law facilitates the government’s ongoing clamp-down on blogs, online content providers, and users alike with stringent regulatory requirements. These include a USD 924 licensing fee, the disclosure of ‘strategic’ information and the auditing of content by the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA), failing which transgressors may be subject to severe penalties.
After dealing with the online media sphere, the Tanzanian government has turned its attention to broadcast media, especially foreign-owned companies. Last year, the TCRA threatened to suspend the operating license for the Multichoice and Simbanet television companies. This action follows a string of contentious media-related regulatory measures, beginning with the Media Services Bill and Cybercrime Act. The Act criminalises ‘defamatory’ remarks and content that is deemed ‘seditious’ while authorising greater government oversight. This, in an apparent bid to regulate publicly accessible information so as to manage the narrative on a problematic political and economic agenda.
In targeting such entities with rigid operating requirements and colouring its persecution with nationalist rhetoric such as the ‘my country first initiative’, the government of President John Magufuli stands to gain both politically and economically. This, through increased revenue, royalties and penal payments as well as an appreciation in political stock in a country where economic nationalistic sentiments are still prevalent.
Various other African governments are implementing strict regulations on online media, which may set the tone for future crackdowns on internet connectivity and mobile telecommunications. Last year, Uganda’s government passed a new tax on social media, under which users must pay USD 0.05 a day to use popular platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp. Both Tanzania and Uganda’s restrictive cybercrime and media laws were inspired by similar measures imposed in China.
Other than Tanzania and Uganda, countries where such authoritarian practices are most likely to be implemented over 2019 include Zambia, Zimbabwe, Togo, Senegal, DRC, Guinea, Algeria, and Egypt.
See Country Outlook: Tanzania
RISK OUTLOOK FOR INTERNET SHUTDOWNS IN AFRICA IN 2019
In 2019, a number of countries are likely to impose full or partial internet shutdowns that will pose severe risk of contract frustration to operators, as well as broad economic disruption to investors. Some of these countries will hold highly contested elections this year and have already been identified in EXX Africa’s recent Africa Elections Special Report. More than half of Africa’s 54 countries will hold some form of election next year (See SPECIAL REPORT: TEN KEY AFRICAN ELECTIONS IN 2019).
Other countries, like Tanzania and Uganda, are implementing restrictive cybercrime and media laws to crack down on dissent and protests. EXX Africa has selected the ten countries where the probability of internet shutdowns or other forms of connectivity disruption is highest and where the risk of commercial disruption is most severe.
A 2016 study by the Brookings Institution revealed that shutdowns drained USD 2.4 billion from the global economy between 2015 and 2016. A 2017 report by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), estimated that sub-Saharan Africa lost up to USD 237 million to internet shutdowns since 2015. Given the rise in internet shutdowns and other forms of connectivity restrictions since then, particularly in Asia and Africa, this number is likely to be far higher in 2019.
The estimated cost of daily economic disruption varies from country to country: Ethiopia’s daily cost is USD 3.5 million, while Cameroon’s shutdown in Anglophone regions results in daily economic losses of USD 1.67 million. Since the shutdowns have become increasingly sophisticated, with governments targeting specific regions or communities, the broader economic costs may be mitigated. In Ethiopia 36 days of national and regional internet shutdowns between 2015 and 2017 cost the country USD 123 million, while Cameroon’s 93-day shutdown in Anglophone regions in 2017 made USD 38 million in total economic losses.
However, the cost would be different for economies with more developed media and IT sectors – a total shutdown in Kenya could potentially cost USD 6.3 million a day (CIPESA). As indicated in our 2019 risk ratings above, the threat of internet shutdowns in large and developed economies such as Kenya or Senegal, is rising. Shutdowns are no longer restricted to small and less developed economies, like those of Chad, Burundi, or DRC.
Activist groups Internet Society and NetBlocks have created a data-driven online tool, The Cost of Shutdown Tool (COST), to better measure the economic cost of internet shutdowns. Greater awareness of shutdowns in Africa, driven by media, governments, business, and NGOs, is expected to facilitate improved assessments of the economic costs, as well as enhanced risk mitigation strategies (like VPNs) to avoid commercial disruption in future.