Internet and social media shutdowns have become more and more common across Africa and Asia in recent years, particularly as authoritarian governments look to China as the model for controlling what people can say and do online.
Barnabe Kikaya bin Karubi told the news agency that the country would remain offline until full results were published on January 6. Doing otherwise could “lead us straight toward chaos,” he added.
“(We’ve seen an) increased number of intentional, government-sponsored internet disruptions in the past three years,” Access Now’s Melody Patry told CNN. “The techniques used by governments to shut down the internet vary, from total blackouts to targeted throttling or blocking of specific applications.”
Africa and Asia are the worst affected regions, with the longest recent shutdown happening in Cameroon when Anglophone regions of the country spent 230 days without internet access between January 2017 and March 2018.
The effects of an internet shutdown go beyond simply cutting off people’s access to information.
Protecting ‘national security’
The methods behind an internet shutdown, particularly a complete one, are fairly simple. The government simply orders internet service providers (ISPs) to stop their connections — it’s like turning off a home modem, but for the entire country.
After protests and riots broke out in the regional capital Urumqi in July 2009, internet access to all of Xinjiang — along with international phone and text messaging services — was cut off for almost a year.
This was justified on the grounds of security, with the military newspaper China National Defense Daily warning the riots “once again demonstrates that it is becoming urgent to strengthen internet control. This is to avoid the internet becoming a new poisoned arrow for hostile forces.”
Similar justifications have been made by other countries following China’s lead. According to Access Now, the top three reasons given for internet shutdowns are “public safety,” stopping the spreading of illegal content and “national security.”
In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni defended a 2016 shutdown as a “security measure to avert lies … intended to incite violence and illegal declaration of election results.”
In its report last year, Freedom House warned “a cohort of countries is moving toward digital authoritarianism by embracing the Chinese model of extensive censorship and automated surveillance systems.”
It pointed to trainings run by Beijing for foreign officials on internet policy and controls. “While it is not always clear what transpires during such seminars, a training for Vietnamese officials in April 2017 was followed in 2018 by the introduction of a cybersecurity law that closely mimics China’s own law,” the report said.
“Increased activity by Chinese companies and officials in Africa similarly preceded the passage of restrictive cybercrime and media laws in Uganda and Tanzania over the past year.”
Patry, the Access Now expert, said that China “has been pushing for a controlled internet” in international debates. The most recent example of this was at the annual World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, southern China.
As citizens of the DRC are discovering, however, with more and more leaders hostile towards internet freedom and keen to follow China’s model, new global rules crafted by Beijing are likely to benefit censors — not users.