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Africa's innovative response to internet repression

Samuel Woodhams
November 12, 2019

As governments across Africa continue to introduce internet policies that hurt connectivity rates and stifle freedom of expression, an increasing number of digital rights activists and organizations are fighting back.

Three men working on tablets, mobiles and computers at athe Africa Web Festival
Image: Getty Images/AFP/I. Sanogo

From social media taxes and disruptive internet shutdowns, to divisive disinformation campaigns and overpriced mobile data rates, there is no shortage of problematic internet governance practices in Africa.

Behind the headlines, however, there are a growing number of citizens pushing back.

From community networks that help bridge the rural/urban connectivity divide in South Africa, to independent fact checking services in Ethiopia, people across the continent have been pushing for more innovative techniques and technologies to promote open, affordable and inclusive digital spaces.

But the rise of regressive internet governance policies is still hard to contain. Just last month, the Zambian government proposed an additional tax for citizens accessing Netflix, claiming that it would help "level the playing field and protect local content."

As Uganda has shown, however, additional taxes on web services often end up hurting connectivity rates and citizens' right to information.

Read more: Digital Rights: Civic space continues to be constrained

Following the implementation of additional taxes on mobile money transactions and social media platforms, nationwide internet usage figures dropped by 30%, according to Uganda's state-run telecommunications authority. 

A woman reads a message on social media tax as she scrolls through her Facebook account on her phone in Kampala
Uganda was hit with a social media tax in July 2018, which saw the country's communications regulator block access to social media platforms including WhatsApp, Facebook and TwitterImage: Getty Images/AFP/I. Kasamani

However, the taxes did not go unchallenged.

A survey by Whitehead Communications found that 57% percent of citizens were using VPN apps to bypass the taxes. VPNs work by rerouting a users' internet traffic to a remote server and encrypting the data in transit, meaning that ISPs cannot track which apps or websites are being accessed.

During a phone call with DW from Kampala, Juliet Nanfuka from the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) said this epitomised the reactive approach that is often adopted regarding digital rights.

"In Uganda, many people only started appreciating digital security or freedom of expression when they had lost their access to social media," she said.

Spread of disinformation dangerous

Even when social media platforms are freely available, however, they can still have destabilising effects.

Abel Wabella, the co-founder of the Ethiopian-based Zone 9 blogging collective and managing editor of digital news platform Gobena Street, stressed the dangerous potential of disinformation. 

"For the past three decades, the media industry in Ethiopia was repressed. Because of that, the role of social media in Ethiopia is much more significant than the mainstream media," he told DW. 

In a country where violent unrest is on the rise, disinformation can be particularly dangerous. To combat this, Abel and a group of other journalists are establishing fact checking services to help the population "understand and filter which content is genuine."

Despite these efforts, the scale and impact of disinformation remains an issue and, earlier this year, Ethiopia joined the growing list of African countries that have restricted access to the internet to control the flow of information.

An internet cafe in Gondar, Ethiopia
An internet cafe in Gondar, Ethiopia. The country regularly experiences internet blackouts and just 15% of the population has reliable accessImage: Imago/ZUMA Press

Read more: Media freedom in Africa 'not great'

Internet shutdowns remain commonplace across Africa

In 2018, there were 13 nationwide internet shutdowns in Africa, according to the digital rights advocacy organisation, Access Now. This year, internet shutdowns have occurred in Sudan, Ethiopia, Algeria, Liberia, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. 

As internet shutdowns become increasingly frequent, the number of organisations working to prevent them continues to rise. Access Now's #KeepItOn coalition, which campaigns to stop the practice, currently has 191 members representing 68 countries.

In Chad, the government ended its 16-month social media shutdown in July this year. The restrictions left activists, journalists and families disconnected, and cost the country around $20 million (€18 million) per month, according to Netblocks' and the Internet Society's COST tool. 

Despite the government's attempts, however, it was impossible to entirely prevent the flow of information as digital rights advocates worked to help citizens bypass the blocks. In one such instance, Internet Sans Frontieres, a member of the #KeepItOn coalition, provided mobile data and VPN applications to their network of activists to bypass the blocks.

Poor connectivity still an issue

Despite these efforts, low connectivity rates remain a prominent issue. In fact, Chad has an internet penetration rate of just 11.4%, according to CIPESA.

Unaffordable data prices are a major contributor to low internet penetration rates across the continent. As the Alliance for Affordable Internet's latest report showed, the average cost of 1GB of data in Africa is 7.12% of an average monthly salary.

The equivalent in the US would be a staggering $373 per 1GB of data.

Given that fact, it's hardly surprising that community-owned networks have become increasingly popular.

Read more: Finding digital solutions to local problems, Kenya's innovation scene is no one-hit wonder

An infographic showing the use of mobile internet across Africa

Room for optimism

Speaking to DW from Tanzania, Carlos Rey-Moreno — the founder of Zenzeleni Networks, a community ISP which provides affordable connectivity in rural South Africa — is still optimistic about the future.

"The only thing that is happening from year to year is more people wanting to be here, more people wanting to establish new community networks," he said during a phone call from the Fourth Summit on Community Networks in Africa.

Community networks have been shown to help alleviate the rural/urban connectivity divide and provide underdeveloped areas with affordable connectivity. They also incentivise communities to help build sustainable and effective networks.

"If a user has been involved from the beginning, they have skin in the game," Rey-Moreno explained, "They are going to do everything to make it sustainable, to make it happen."

With the rise of community networks, digital rights advocacy and rising digital literacy, citizens across the continent are increasingly finding ways to overcome the negative effects of regressive internet governance practices across the continent.

Although good digital governance is unlikely to occur overnight, the work of these organisations, citizens and activists, means that there remains considerable hope for the future.

As Nanfuka told DW: "A whole lot more is yet to come on the topic of digital rights in Africa, from Africa."