Why you should care
Africans use of the Internet might be costing them access to it.
The bus ride from Buea to Doula takes more than two hours, and that’s without traffic says Monique Kwachou. From January to April, Kwachou, a student affairs officer and part-time lecturer at the University of Buea endured the long journey from Buea and other French-speaking parts of Cameroon — laptops and smartphones in tow — in order to access the Internet. In Cameroon, another African country to undergo an internet shutdown, English-speaking parts of the country, like Buea, suffered a three-month Internet blackout from January to April after the government commanded telecommunication companies to restrict access following a series of political protests.
Internet shutdowns are nothing new, and although the motivation for flipping the Off switch usually is political, the most immediate collateral damage usually is economic. According to TK source, from July 2015 through June 2016, there were 81 shutdowns or disruptions in 19 countries, costing $2 billion. And nowhere are the dollar-draining effects of increased shutdowns more pronounced than in Africa, where the Internet is poised to contribute as much as $300 billion a year to continent’s GDP by 2025 according to a report from McKinsey and Company. In Cameroon, where Internet penetration has more than tripled since 2012 to reach 18 percent of the population of 23 million, the 94-day shutdown earlier this year that disrupted the lives of Kwachou and thousands of others cost the country’s economy $4.5 million.
That may not sound like much in a country with an annual GDP of $29.2 billion, but many experts think that figure doesn’t begin to reflect how much damage was done. “[It] doesn’t include the informal economy which, in a country like Cameroon, a lot of people rely on to survive,” says Deji Olukotun, global advocacy manager at Access Now, a New York-based advocate for digital rights. “It doesn’t capture the social unrest that occurs, it doesn’t capture the fact that people’s social services are cut off, and they can loose basic opportunities to support themselves.”
In Beau, a university town and home to a thriving tech hub known as Silicon Mountain, cybercafés and other Internet-reliant businesses closed their doors and many tech entrepreneurs in the city complained about the effect of the shutdown on their livelihoods. Another affected party? Telecommunication companies. Yves Nissim of Orange Cameroon, the country’s second-largest telecommunication company, confirmed that the organization lost 20 percent of its revenue because of the shutdowns. The senior official also stated that two staff members were taken into police custody, which is why they complied with the government’s orders. [why were they taken into custody?]
According to Julie Owono, head of the Africa Desk at Internet Sans Frontières (Internet Without Borders), telecommunication companies often have difficult decisions to make, because many of them have agreed not to challenge the government in order to operate in said country and if the government believes a shutdown is legal, they often have no choice but to comply. But Owono believes that they shouldn’t give up without a fight. “They have challenges, we understand that, but they also have obligations,” says Owono. “They are bound by certain principles, and whenever these companies are faced with demands that are not legal, they should organize themselves as a group of providers who can try and negotiate and reason with the government. This is important because it will prevent these companies for losing money and losing the trust of their users.”
According to Freedom House, internet freedom around the world declined in 2016 for the sixth consecutive year. An estimated 88 percent of the world’s Internet population, 35 percent are not free. [fix] For Africans, this might not come as a surprise. In 2016, the Internet was tampered with in at least 11 African countries. In Uganda the government blocked access on two occasions to platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. In February, during the country’s presidential elections, the Uganda Communications Commission revealed that it had received an order from the government to block Internet access to prevent interference with the electoral process, and again during the inauguration of five-term President Yoweri Museveni, citing safety concerns. In all, those three disruptions cost the Ugandan economy $TK, according to TK. [”quote about how the unpredictability and randomness of shutdowns are killing budding Internet businesses. The big guys can cope but the SMEs are the real engine behind the country’s economic growth.”]
In Gambia, the Internet was also shut down on the eve of the country’s 2016 presidential elections, while Gabon, Burundi, Ethiopia, Chad and Republic of Congo followed suit. In other countries like Ethiopia and Algeria, shutdowns have been used to stop students from cheating on exams.
Many governments on the continent insist that restricting Internet access is an attempt to protect its citizens, and they even have the laws to prove it. A report by Paradigm Initiative, which profiled 30 African countries, revealed that cybersecurity legislation in most of these countries contains vague language that gives the government power to monitor user traffic, access user data, block websites, jail or fine someone for information shared online or shut down the Internet if the government feels that it is in the interest of public safety. All this, despite the fact that such actions are in direct violation of the UN Human Rights Council Resolution on Internet rights.
In 2015, a report from Telegeography showed that international internet growth in Africa continues to outpace that of any other region, but this growth can only continue when the government to understand that “it has more to lose than to win by censoring the internet,” says Owono. In many African countries, the Internet has jumpstarted economies or created new ones. That alone should give the government more than enough reasons to #KeepItOn.
Africa’s digital stock is rising. A 2015 report from Telegeography showed that international Internet growth in Africa continues to outpace that of any other region. With significant contributions to the GDP growth in countries like Senegal and Kenya, the Internet is poised to contribute as much as $300 billion a year to Africa’s GDP by 2025 according to a report from McKinsey and Company. Despite growth on the continent, there is a paralyzing trend that threatens how much access to the Internet citizens in African countries are afforded.
Internet shutdowns or network disruptions aren’t new. In Egypt, the government disconnected the internet as a means to quell protests, and from July 1, 2015, through June 30, 2016, there have been a total of 81 Internet shutdowns or disruptions in 19 countries with over $2 billion lost as a result. But on the African continent where Internet penetration numbers are steadily rising and countries are moving headfirst into a digital economy, governments shutting down, censoring people’s use or curtailing access to certain parts of the Internet are a threat, not only to the human rights of its citizens, but to the economy of these countries.
In 2016, the Internet was tampered with in at least 11 African countries. In the same year, the UN Human Rights Council and the African Union spoke against internet shutdowns, both stating that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.” These rights include rights to free speech, privacy and assembly, which are usually circumvented during Internet shutdowns.
According to Deji Olukotun, global advocacy manager for Access Now, “the general idea of an Internet shutdown or network disruption is that decisions are made to control the flow of information and what kind of information people have access to.”
In Cameroon, the most recent African country to undergo an Internet shutdown, social media was used to document human rights abuses in Anglophone parts of the country amid a heated debate about the marginalization of the country’s English-speaking citizens, despite the government calling social media “a new form of terrorism.” The use of social media as a tool for political dissent is not unique to the continent, but according to a report called How Africa Tweets from Portland Communications, compared to citizens in the U.S. and the U.K., Africans use Twitter to engage in more political conversations. Analysis showed that almost one in 10 of the most popular African hashtags in 2015 are related to political issues, compared to 2 percent of hashtags in the U.S. and U.K. “If politicians are using social media to interact with citizens, they should expect that citizens will use social media to interact with them and voice discontent whenever they’re not happy,” says Julie Owono, head of the Africa Desk at Internet Sans Frontières (Internet Without Borders).
In 2016, the Ugandan government blocked access to platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter on two occasions. In February, during the country’s presidential elections, the Uganda Communications Commission revealed that it had received an order from the government to block access as not to interfere with the electoral process, and again during the country’s inauguration of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, who is serving his fifth term, citing safety concerns.
In Gambia, the internet was also shut down on the eve of the country’s 2016 presidential elections, while Gabon, Burundi, Ethiopia, Chad and Republic of Congo followed suit. Despite the political timeliness of these shutdowns, many governments still insist that restricting access to the Internet is an attempt to protect its citizens, and they even have the laws to prove it. A report by Paradigm Initiative, which profiled 30 African countries, revealed that cybersecurity legislation in most of these countries contain vague laws that give the government power to monitor user traffic, access user data, block websites, jail or fine someone for information shared online or shut down the Internet if the government feels that it is in the interest of the public’s safety.
Arthur Gwagwa, notes that “the laws may not be perfect, the main problem will be in their application.”
“It is not acceptable to use national security concerns as a blanket justification to excuse unwarranted privacy breaches.”
According to Freedom House, Internet freedom around the world declined in 2016 for the sixth consecutive year — of 88 percent of the world’s Internet population, 35 percent are not free. But the effect on African countries socially and economically are extremely damning. The digitization of industries like finance and agriculture proves that effects of Internet shutdowns can ripple through the country’s entire economy. In 94 days, Cameroon lost $4.5 million dollars due to the internet shutdown, but many think that estimate doesn’t even begin to capture how much damage resulted from the shutdown. “That estimate doesn’t include the informal economy which, in a country like Cameroon, a lot of people rely on to survive,” says Olukotun.
Beyond the financial repercussions of the shutdown, the social disarray and anxiety that network disruptions bring are even more damaging. In the Cameroonian city of Buea, a university town and a thriving tech hub also known as Silicon Mountain, students and tech developers traveled almost two hours to the southwest city of Bonako to access the Internet. On the campus of the University of Buea, things ground to a halt. “Students had problems completing online registration,” says Monique Kwachou, a student affairs officer and part-time lecturer at the university. “Final year undergrads and grad students were forced to travel to Douala or Bafoussam to follow up research. Instructors were frustrated, calls for papers and abstracts were paused unless you had a car and cash to cross to Douala and browse.”
With a number of upcoming presidential elections in 2018, including one in Cameroon, people are searching for solutions to ensure a more open Internet in Africa. One step is getting the government to understand that Internet rights are human rights and should be protected as such. After the success of the #BringBackOurInternet campaign in Cameroon and the #KeepItOn campaign worldwide, citizens are more alert about the possibility of a shutdown and are looking for solutions. “We must thank the Internet for the active and vibrant voice of citizens who are engaging around these issues,” says Adeboye Adegoke of Paradigm Initiative. “The Internet was conceived to be open and free, and we can only get the best of the internet if it remains that way for everyone.”