The Internet & Africa: Will African states take the Chinese stance on censorship?

It’s no secret that across Africa tech is misused by ruling parties to stop the spreading of information. As Africa becomes more connected, rural areas where information was not so easily accessible are now able to join in on the conversations, be it via Whatsapp or the ever so popular, Facebook. The Arab Spring in 2011 saw social media play a huge part in the disintegration of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. The reaction from the regimes was to outright block Facebook and Twitter, with Egypt going one unprecedented step further of blocking access to the internet for 5 days in January 2011. This meant that citizens in these countries would only see the propaganda on state-controlled broadcasters. Since then, different measures of censorship and legislation changes to constitutions have been implemented across Africa.

Robert Kyagulanyi protesting a controversial tax on the use of social media. (Sumy Sudurni/AFP/Getty Images)

In East Africa, Tanzania has decided to put a tax on bloggers publishing content. As part of the new regulations, the government will charge an annual fee and document anyone who wishes to blog online. The requirements to be a blogger also require the applicant to showcase the estimated cost of investment in the platform, the number of directors and stakeholders, share of capital, future growth plans and staff qualifications. The government of Tanzania still reserve the right however to revoke a permit if they feel the site, “causes annoyance, threatens or is evil, encourages or incites crimes” or jeopardizes “national security or public health and safety.” Punishment for violating these rules could lead to a year in prison or a fine of £1,600 ($5million Tanzanian Shillings). The bill dubbed the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2018 shows the disregard towards free speech and the unwillingness of regimes to allow citizens to have an open internet. The annual fee of £700 also looks to make the license unaffordable for citizens in a country where the gross national income per capita is just £683. Intergovernmental organizations such as EAC (East African Community) should be doing more to stop such practices. Policies such as this will limit Africas’ contribution to the global internet, suppressing stories and taking away the voices online of the unheard.

In Southern Africa, the Zimbabwean government at the direction of former President Robert Mugabe decided to set up a new ministry responsible for Cyber Security, Threat Detection and Mitigation with a focus on threats to the state. As internet usage had grown in Zimbabwe from 0.3% to 46% penetration and with state media such as ZBC (Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation) accused of their bias towards the ruling party, it was no surprise that most Zimbabweans were looking at the internet for more unbiased news. An online revolution known as #ThisFlag was started by Pastor Evan Mawararire which began a revolution in Zimbabwe. Across Africa, the pattern is the same, any sign of political instability, the first steps most governments now take is to block access to social media and information.

How do governments do it?

Surprisingly, most governments do not have the technical ability to block websites, phones or texts. This is all down the network providers. The Congolese government has previously issued orders to operators such as Airtel and MTN to block access to the internet. This usually involved sending a list of numbers to be exempt as was seen when the communications minister attempted to deny the communications by showcasing he could tweet. In Uganda however, the telecoms regulator ordered all mobile phone operators to block sites such as Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter. This was to break the link between the diaspora and citizens in the country, to further this agenda, most mobile money services and fintech services were unavailable. Tech companies such as Twitter acknowledged the ban but did not condemn it. This is when organisations such as ECOWAS, ECA and SADC should step in and condemn such acts.

Congolese Communication and Media Minister, Thierry Moungalla showcasing how he was still able to tweet during the #Congo2016 election internet blackout.

How to circumvent the blocks?

VPN has always been the method of choice. According to App Annie (they track app downloads), the top 12 apps downloaded in Uganda after the 2016 election, were VPN apps. Whilst this worked in Uganda, citizens were not so lucky in Congo and Chad, who followed Egypt’s example and cut off access to the whole internet and telephones which meant people could not use VPNs.

How do VPNs work?

How VPN works — Source: VPNMentor

When a government orders a telecommunications provider to block access to Facebook, for example, they usually block the IP address registered to Facebook on their network. Meaning attempts from said devices will fail as it can’t connect to Facebook since it’s blocked at the network level. VPN gets around government censorship by redirecting internet traffic to a computer in a different country where the blocks are not in place.

What’s next?

Africa's relationship with China has for some been an uncomfortable one to watch. The levels of investment, whilst welcome, have led some to call it the second colonialization of the continent. How far are we away from adopting Chinese policies on censorship? It is well documented that the internet in China is heavily monitored. Whilst more people in China probably do have more access to the internet, more people in Africa have access to an unfiltered version. Social media platform Sina Weibo saw a 68% increase in users in 2018, almost reaching the 500 million mark. it was hailed as a microblogging service for Chinas internet in 2009 and over the last 9 years, they have boasted of having 60.2 million daily active users. However, the government has maintained a tight leash on the social media platform. In 2012, the government implemented a 5 strike rule where users would be suspended if they post about “politically sensitive” topics.

“Governments on the continent seem to be sharing notes on how to ‘legally’ limit free speech and access to information” — Kuda Hove, Legal and ICT policy officer of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) in Zimbabwe

Former Information Communication Technology, Postal and Courier Services Minister; Supa Mandiwanzira from Zimbabwe announced in 2017 that the government had engaged local web developers to stitch together products similar to social networking sites such as Facebook, Whatsapp, Youtube, Skype and Twitter which Zimbabwe could monitor to, “protect citizen rights following surges in social media abuse through propagating falsehoods, defamation, character assassination and national security threats.” Countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, Tunisia, Congo and Egypt have shown total disregard for allowing a free internet for their citizens, is it then wise to entrust these governments with social media platforms that are heavily policed such as Sina Weibo? Arrests are common in China over criticism of Chinese leadership. Censorship goes as far as blocking terms such as “elections” being used on the microblogging services. The more these African states look at China as the beacon of light, the closer we are getting to a censored Africa.

Africa's problems are unique to our continent, and we must allow our people to have the freedom to access resources, spread their talents and share their passions online. Governments should not tax and police social media. It is a shame that the tech companies operating in Africa are unable to refuse or condemn these acts. Threats of sanctions and already tough licensing requirements already make some industries hard to operate by, and for the lively hoods of their employers, some companies have opted to comply with government requests. This is wrong. The taxation is creating a bigger divide in the information gap in Africa. Access to data is already expensive with technology such as fibre broadband and 3G not easily accessible outside of major cities. The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa recently announced that the social media tax in Uganda raised the cost of connectivity by at least 10% for Uganda's poorest citizens. Whilst access to VPN apps can usually be free, having a smartphone capable of accessing these stores is not. Also being tech-savvy enough to be able to use tech as such VPN is usually common with people on the higher end of the economic spectrum.

It’s not all doom & gloom!

A recently published report by the GSM Association (GSMA) titled, “The mobile economy in sub-Saharan Africa” shows that Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa accounted for 76% of total funds raised by startups in the region. Last year, 124 tech start-ups across Africa raised $560million USD with edtech raising 12%. The more investment the regions see, the more governments will see the benefits of job creation and solving our unique problems. Should investment go towards the creation of social media platforms, government intervention should be only to provide resource and not police for political gain. Focusing on the creation of tech hubs to help nurture African talent, investment in infrastructure to make the internet more accessible and affordable and implementing a greater focus on technology in our education system will help in creating a smarter, safer and accessible internet in Africa.

17 out of 54 nations in Africa have blocked internet or access to the internet since as early as 2002 as a political strategy. In the modern world where businesses rely on connectivity to function, the loss in revenue during these shutdowns is setting us as a continent back. More should be done by the African Union (AU) and also the smaller regional communities. With so much investment potential for African startups, we should be looking to leave the political policing of the internet behind, and looking towards a more accessible net neutrality.

A curated list of all the 17 countries who have recently blocked access to the internet across Africa. Sources have been referenced.

Will most likely be updating this with the latest post covering the elections in DR Congo and also the full internet shutdown in Zimbabwe following the #ShutDownZimbabawe & #SwitchOnZW movements.

By Stephen Chapendama

Cyber Security & Africa | Technology Manager @ & Senior Software Engineer in Cyber & Intelligence 🚀

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