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Uganda, Ethiopia, Egypt… the hidden cost of internet blackouts

African Report | Communication technology is a double-edged sword. It can empower people to access and share information globally, or be used as an instrument of political and economic control. While hopes were raised by the Arab Spring a decade ago, the years since have seen multiple internet blackouts in many African countries.

In the past ten years, the practice of jamming cyber communication has become a new tool by certain nations and governments.

Perhaps the most famous example of all is Egypt during the Arab Spring in 2011. For five days, the Egyptian government shut down all internet communication, to disrupt the 2011 protests.

Eventually, this cost the Egyptian economy $90m, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Had the blackout gone for a whole year, it would have put a dent in Egypt’s GDP of around 3-4%.

“Most of the blackouts were across the entire [country] so it affected every person, business, and organisation. They were not targeted on particular institutions but affected everyone in that place,” says Darrell M. West, the vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institute.

Mohamed Basiouny, an owner of a cyber cafe confirms what West says, adding that the shutdown did trickle down to impact everyone: “Cyber cafes [were] playing a central role at the time so, it was not just kids fooling around on the internet. ” Like many others, Basiouny’s business relied on internet communications. “No internet, no money – it’s as simple as that,” he adds.

Ethiopia’s blackout history

In the same vein, the Ethiopian government cut off internet across most of the country after the fatal shooting of musician and activist Hachalu Hundessa.

The singer is affiliated with the Oromo movement that took down the previous prime minister.

The blackout took place on 30 June 2020 and went on for 23 straight days, interfering with Ethiopians’ rights to access information and muzzling any vestige of freedom of expression.

As for the country’s economy, NetBlocks estimated the losses to surpass Br3bn ($102m). Later in the year, the northern region of Tigray witnessed another blackout as Ethiopia’s prime minister and Nobel peace prize laureate Abiy Ahmed announced a “red line” had been crossed by the TPLF leadership.

The ensuing internet blockage curtailed media coverage of the Tigray region that saw thousands killed or displaced. Businesses largely reliant on internet connections and communication also suffered the financial consequences of being shutdown during the conflict.

“These shutdowns are not, and will never be, haphazard. They are well planned and specifically targeting the people in question. In this instance, it is the people of Tigray and their businesses,” says IT consultant and former employee at the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce and Sectorial Associations (ECCSA), Samuel Maasho*.

According to Maasho, Abiy was intentionally targeting the region’s gold producer and a huge textile factory, both of which funnel funds to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. “This alone can paralyse a whole country, let alone a region like Tigray,” he says.

New tactical response

The scale of such practices is a much bigger problem today than it was a few years ago says West. According to his research in 2016: “Many of the shutdowns are occurring on a nationwide level as opposed to what used to be in local communities. Shutdowns are being put in place to quell political protests, stop coverage of human rights abuses, and to limit some economic activities.”

Similarly, Ramy Raoof, a privacy and digital security researcher and tactical technologist at Amnesty International, sees internet shutdowns more as a tactical response, than a tool itself, to have instant control-impact.

“Internet shutdowns are by design unsustainable, technically speaking, and it’s meant as a temporary response with either gradual shutdown or gradual restoration. And even during blackouts the states sometimes only apply 80-90 % of shutdowns because they might want to keep national institutions online to avoid financial disasters,” he tells The Africa Report.

Alternatives for businesses?

Beyond building a reliable system based on offline practices or returning to old habits from phone calls to fax machines, one has to wonder, is there a more sustainable alternative?

“All the tips and approaches the activists would engage with, such as international sim cards, satellite phones and connections, are highly dependent on the context,” says Raoof. “The telecommunication infrastructure works differently [de]pending on the ownership. So infrastructure ownership determines how surveillance and controls take place. In many scenarios these tips are valid momentarily for a limited amount of time until those frequencies are also targeted/shutdown.” He points to the example of Egypt in 2011 when the internet crackdown targeted different parts of the communications infrastructure at different times.

“The whole point of internet shutdowns by governments is to keep individuals and organisations from communicating,” says West. He echos Raoof’s concerns, adding such alternative tools would need to be available to all, otherwise they would be futile.

One example to spark answers are how bigger companies can manage to avoid the worst of the crackdowns.

“We were never impacted,” says *Ahmed Bayoumi, operations manager at one of Egypt’s towering outsourcing call centres, in reference to the internet blackout in 2011. “The government cut off the internet for networks and domestic internet providers. But big corporations like ours that are based on leased lines or direct cables were not impacted,” recalls Byoumi.

Following from that experience, one of the projects he set up in 2015 involves using a microwave tower that is fed directly from the mother source. “This tower is linked to a Synchronous Transport Module 1 (STM1),” he explains. It allows companies to remain connected despite any government-imposed blockage, but it comes with a price tag. STM1 is a network transmission of around 155.5Mbit/s and costs about LE12m ($768,296).

For those companies that cannot afford such access, it’s a lose-lose situation: “It’s very costly for small enterprises. Imagine paying for a marketing campaign via Facebook. And suddenly the internet stops. You can’t possibly retrieve that money,” he adds.

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