As the internet continues to gain considerable power and agency around the world, many governments have moved to regulate it. And where regulation fails, some states resort to internet shutdowns or deliberate disruptions.
But similar shutdowns are becoming common on the African continent. Already in 2019 there have been shutdowns in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Chad, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Last year there were 21 such shutdowns on the continent. This was the case in Togo, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Ethiopia, among others.
The justifications for such shutdowns are usually relatively predictable. Governments often claim that internet access is blocked in the interest of public security and order.
How They Do It
Internet shutdowns or disruptions usually take three forms.
The first and probably the most serious is where the state completely blocks access to the internet on all platforms.
The financial costs can run into millions of dollars for each day the internet is blocked. on the issue estimates that a country with average connectivity could lose at least 1.9 percent of its daily GDP for each day all internet services are shut down.
For countries with average to medium level connectivity the loss is 1 percent of daily GDP, and for countries with average to low connectivity it’s 0.4 percent. It’s estimated that Ethiopia, for example, could lose whenever there is a shutdown.
These shutdowns, then, damage businesses, discourage investments, and hinder economic growth.
The second way that governments restrict internet access is by applying content blocking techniques.
Online spaces have become the platform for various forms of political expression that many States, especially those with authoritarian leanings, consider subversive. , for example, that social media platforms encourage the spread of rumours which can trigger public unrest.
In this case telecom operators or internet service providers are forced to lower the quality of their cell signals or internet speed. This makes the internet too slow to use. “Throttling” can also target particular online destinations such as social media sites.
What Drives Governments
In most cases the desire to control the internet is rooted in governments’ determination to control the political narrative.
Many see the internet as an existential threat that must be contained, no matter what consequences it will have on other sectors.
The internet is seen as a threat because it disrupts older forms of government political control, particularly the control of information.
The loss of this control, at a time when the media has brought politics closer to the people, presents governments with a distinctly unsettling reality. Social media, for example, inherently encourages political indiscipline and engenders the production and circulation of alternative political narratives.
In addition, because it is a networked platform, users are simultaneously and instantaneously local and international and are engaged in an information carnival that is difficult to police. Quite often the narratives therein are at variance with the self-preserving and carefully constructed ideologies of the state.
The Shutdown Trend
The irony, however, is that as these shutdowns continue, even proliferate, there is scant evidence they actually work. Instead, they seem to animate dissent and encourage precisely the kind of responses considered subversive by many governments.
Internet shutdowns don’t stop demonstrations. Nor do they hinder the production and circulation of rumours: They encourage them instead.
Many people are also circumventing the shutdowns through the use of virtual private networks (VPNs). These are networks that redirect internet activity to a computer in a different geographical location thus enabling access to sites blocked in one’s own country. VPNS are now in countries like Zimbabwe.
The future of unfettered internet access in Africa looks precarious should governments continue on this trajectory. The absence in many African countries of enforceable constitutional guarantees that protect the public’s right to information means there are few opportunities for legal redress. This makes the development of legislative regimes that recognise and protect access to the internet both urgent and necessary.
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.)