Ethiopia Shutoff Internet Almost Two Years Ago: What Do We Know Now?

Way back in November 2020, in the hours before war erupted within Ethiopia, an intentional Internet outage was forced upon its northern region.

Network data from the NetBlocks internet observatory confirm that internet has been cut regionally in Ethiopia from 1 a.m. Wednesday 4 November 2020 local time. Metrics corroborate widespread reports of a data and telephony blackout in the northern region of Tigray, which are ongoing as of midnight.

The blackout has continued since then and some recent reports have tried to estimate the result.

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With Tigray rendered into an unreachable island, it is impossible for one to present an accurate assessment of the impact of the blockade of the Internet. For, ironically, that would require the Internet or any other means of connecting to Tigray to study the damage that has been inflicted on Tigray by the blockade. This, however, does not mean that one cannot make a reasonable prediction by analyzing what damage the total shutdown of the internet in this day and age can do to an economy and society that were already struggling. Families have been separated for more than a year; promising start-up businesses have been forced to shut down; universities have stopped functioning; banking services are unavailable; and all other Internet-based businesses have gone bankrupt.

An island is right. Brookings gives a sharp contrast between Ethiopia’s infrastructure and neighboring states.

Even though the country is the second-most populous in Africa, its 110 million people are among the most digitally isolated on the continent. The country’s internet penetration of 18 percent is just below Guinea and above the Democratic Republic of the Congo—a remarkable contrast to neighboring Kenya where the internet penetration rate is 85 percent and in Nigeria, where it is 73 percent.

Freedom House further explains how forced outages have been wielded.

The communications restrictions also impeded the documentation of rights abuses and distribution of humanitarian aid; security forces have blockaded food supplies to cause mass food insecurity, weaponized sexual violence, and attacked aid workers. Ethio Telecom blamed “law enforcement operations” for the shutdown, releasing closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera footage of armed individuals forcefully entering their Mekelle compound and deactivating the power distribution source. […] As a landlocked country, Ethiopia has no direct access to submarine cable landing stations; instead, it connects to the international internet via satellite, a fiber-optic cable that passes through Sudan and connects to its international gateway, and another that passes through Djibouti to an international undersea cable. All connections to the international internet are completely centralized under Ethio Telecom, allowing the government to cut off traffic at will.

The US Department of State puts it like this.

Telecommunication, electricity, and other public services remain largely unavailable in the Tigray region as well as other conflict areas.

It all begs the question of what can be known about a region such as this being forcibly closed from communication with the outside world.

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