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Opinion

#KeepItOn: Internet shutdowns only cause harm

Photo credit: Techpoint Africa.

Unreliable electricity, costly data, poor bandwidth and lack of infrastructure are just some of the challenges preventing people in Africa from fully seizing the power of the internet. But no barrier is more devastating or obstructive than when governments deliberately plunge us into darkness by shutting down the internet. Much like the rest of the world, Africans rely heavily on the internet in everyday life, especially as we continue to battle COVID-19. The pandemic has made the vital role of internet and digital communication tools glaringly apparent. Now more than ever, the internet is integral to our work, education, entertainment and access to news and information. For many, it is the only way to connect with our loved ones and keep our businesses afloat. A secure, stable and accessible internet connection is a lifeline to the outside world. Moreover, the internet enables us to exercise fundamental rights, ranging from freedom of opinion and expression, to access to information and freedom of assembly and association.

Despite its ever-growing significance, some governments in Africa are denying their people access to it — by intentionally switching off the internet. Over the past decade or so, African governments have increasingly shut down the internet and social media platforms during critical national events like elections, protests, inaugural ceremonies, school exams and even more dangerously, during conflict and times of unrest. In 2019, there were at least 25 shutdown incidents documented in Africa, compared with 17 in 2018. Governments in countries such as Algeria, Benin, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Guinea, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritania, Tanzania and Zimbabwe have disrupted internet access. From January 2020 to date, countries including Burundi, Ethiopia, Guinea, Togo and Uganda have shut down the internet during protests or elections, with some governments repeating the process several times over.

What makes the issue of internet shutdowns particularly worrying in Africa is the fact they are lasting longer and affecting more people than ever before. What were once sporadic, targeted hits, are increasingly becoming nationwide blackouts, or at minimum blacking out multiple regions and provinces at once. There is no legitimate excuse to shut down the internet, yet governments still attempt to justify the unjustifiable — plunging their citizens into digital darkness. Sometimes they cite “national security” or “precautionary measures” to “prevent spread of hate speech or disinformation and misinformation”. Other times it is to stop cheating in school exams. While there is no evidence to suggest internet shutdowns are useful in achieving these goals, they do an excellent job of interfering with human rights and attacking the freedom to dissent.

Shutdowns hurt democracy

Governments often shut down the internet at a time when people need it most — when they urgently need access to health-related information or emergency services for example, or to identify safe routes home. When a shutdown is implemented during an election, we are denied our right to actively participate in the democratic process, and those outside the countries that cut the internet cannot scrutinise what's happening to us at home. While journalists, human rights defenders, election observers and other key players are prevented from monitoring and reporting on election processes, state and non-state actors have been able to perpetrate egregious crimes or human rights abuses with impunity. This is an affront to democratic principles and a blatant violation of human rights.

Shutdowns hit certain groups harder

Shutdowns destabilise income for people who rely on the internet to run and promote their small businesses and enterprises — especially in emerging economies. This particularly impacts women and marginalised groups. Recent shutdowns in Uganda denied women and girls access to knowledge, and prevented groups like Digital Women Uganda from holding online sessions. The government-imposed internet shutdown in Tanzania forced businesses to close after being prevented from continuing online sales. The work of journalists like Florah Amon, whose entire work depends on the internet, was also disrupted.

Shutdowns are part of a larger scale attack on civic space

The suppression of Africa’s digital space is a reflection of what is occurring in the country’s offline space. The struggle for an open internet requires policy reform and most importantly, the commitment and willingness of governments to ensure an accessible, free digital space. Emerging patterns indicate that once governments begin exerting control over some channels of communication, new reforms follow, tightening governments’ grip on civic space and making it impossible to express divergent views, and undertake healthy debate.

Internet shutdowns have proven futile in resolving crises and research suggests they escalate tensions by limiting freedoms and leaving people in a state of confusion. African governments must invest or channel resources into the ICT sector to provide users with reliable, open and secure internet. This needs to be done in a rights-respecting way, through policies that advance and protect human rights and freedoms in a digital age.

Pushing back against internet shutdowns?

The #KeepItOn coalition unites 240 organisations worldwide and is dedicated to ending internet shutdowns globally. We combine our resources to assess and document network interference, share real-life stories of those affected, disseminate practical information and tools, and ensure that as long as governments are shutting down the internet, a spotlight will be shone on their devastating impact.

We can all play a role in holding governments to account for their actions, particularly around elections. Check out the #KeepItOn: 2021 Elections Watch and let authorities know Africa and the wider world is watching.

Stay tuned for the 2020 #KeepItOn report, which will provide details on shutdowns over the past year and the fight to keep the world connected.