A partial or total shutdown of the internet is becoming more and more common in some Africa countries during general elections.
Once again, Uganda has restricted access to social media application (Facebook, WhatsApp, Instgram, Twitter) and other messaging applications in the run-up to the Thursday’s presidential elections.
Digital rights activists say it’s censorship, but governments argue it helps maintain security.
How does blocking work?
A government can restrict access by ordering internet service providers (ISPs) to limit access to their subscribers.
In the first instance, this is likely to be a block on commonly used social media sites.
As a more extreme measure, the authorities can order service providers to block all internet access.
Which countries are blocking access?
Cases of internet shutdowns in Africa have been rising.
Uganda has ordered internet service providers to block all social media platforms and messaging apps.
Users were already been complaining of facing difficulties accessing some apps and some sites.
Tanzania restricted access to the internet and social media applications during the recent elections last October.
In June last year, Ethiopia imposed an internet shutdown which lasted for close to a month in response to unrest which followed the killing of a prominent Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa.
Zimbabwe, Togo, Burundi, Chad, Mali and Guinea also restricted access to the internet or social media applications at some point last year.
In 2019, there were 25 documented instances of partial or total internet shutdowns, compared with 20 in 2018 and 12 in 2017, according to Access Now, an independent monitoring group.
And the group says that in 2019, seven of the 14 countries that blocked access had not done so in the two previous years.
The new countries were Benin, Gabon, Eritrea, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritania and Zimbabwe.
This is part of a global trend, where more and more countries are restricting internet access, up to 213 shutdowns globally compared with 106 in 2017.
The group says in Africa, most lockdowns tend to affect entire countries as opposed to specific regions or groups of people.
In 2019, 21 out of the 25 shutdowns recorded by the group affected entire countries or most parts of the countries.
Only Sudan and Ethiopia had targeted shutdowns.
“This indicates that shutdowns are not only growing in number, but are also expanding in scope and affecting more and more people in Africa,” the group says.
‘Server not found’
In each country, it’s down to the individual service providers to carry out instructions from the authorities to block access.
One method used is known as URL-based blocking.
This is a filter which prevents access to a list of banned sites.
A user trying to access these sites might see various messages such as “server not found” or “this site has been blocked by the network administrator”.
Another method is called throttling.
This approach severely limits traffic to specific sites, giving the impression that the service is slow, thereby discouraging access.
This is more subtle, as it’s difficult to know whether sites are being actively restricted or whether poor broadband infrastructure is to blame.
As a final measure, telecoms companies can be required to shut down their services entirely, preventing all data access.
Can service providers say no?
The ability of governments to censor the internet depends on their ability to exercise control over telecommunications companies.
Internet service providers are licensed by governments, which means they risk fines or the loss of their contracts.
Operators may have the right to appeal to the courts, but in practice they rarely do.
However, there have been exceptions.
In 2019, the courts in Zimbabwe ruled in favour of reinstating internet access after the government ordered restrictions.
In response, the government implemented new regulations allowing them greater control over the internet.
Unless access to the internet has been shut down completely, there are ways that individuals can manage to evade these barriers.
The most common method is the use of virtual private networks (VPNs). These encrypt data paths, making it difficult for service providers to block access to restricted sites.
Governments can also block VPNs, but are less inclined to do so because this also severely inconveniences foreign diplomats and large companies which use them.
Some African governments have pointed to the rise of “fake news” online as a reason for enforcing restrictions.