By Kim Harrisberg
DURBAN, August 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In the past year shut down the internet have left Africans unable to pay bills, send money to family and access their finances through popular mobile money apps.
As Zambians prepare to go to the polls on Thursday, human rights groups are closely monitoring the possibility of another internet shutdown following reports of suspected slowing of internet speeds over the past week.
The Zambian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has denied tampering with internet access, but warned in a statement that it would not hesitate to take legal action if the internet is used to spread harmful disinformation.
But citizens and activists fighting for their livelihoods and their voices to be heard are pushing back: going to court, signing petitions and downloading Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to evade blackouts.
Here’s an overview of the situation several countries have faced in recent months:
Internet research firm Top10VPN documented a 151 percent increase in VPN usage this week as Zambians try to get around potential restrictions.
“There is a lot of suspicion in the field because of the recently passed Cyber Crimes Act that some legal experts believe would allow the government to shut down the internet,” said Nicole Beardsworth, a political lecturer at the University of Witswatersrand in South Africa.
Local media reported a two-day shutdown during the 2016 election.
The #KeepItOn coalition – a group of more than 240 organizations working to end internet shutdowns worldwide – has a petition to the Zambian government who last week called for uninterrupted internet access.
In late June, eSwatini imposed an internet blockade for “national security” reasons. The small landlocked country in South Africa has been rocked by protests against King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch, who has turned violent in recent months.
These internet outages have cost the country $15.8 million so far. according to Top10VPN.
Unable to earn money, monitor his family and communicate with his clients, adviser and local human rights activist Melusi Simelane decided to sue the government over the shutdown.
Although the case was dropped in July when the closure was lifted, Simelane said activists were closely monitoring the situation and did not hesitate to take legal action in the future to set a precedent that could halt future closures.
“Businesses should be empowered in the future when they get an order from governments to shut down the internet to say, look, we can’t do that because courts have labeled this an infringement,” Simelane said.
In early June, nearly 200 Nigerians, along with local rights group the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), filed a lawsuit seeking to lift a government ban on the use of Twitter.
The ban came two days after the social media giant removed a post from President Muhammadu Buhari threatening to punish regional secessionists for violating the rules, according to Twitter. After the suspension, the country’s attorney general ordered that those who continued to use Twitter should be prosecuted.
The government said the ban was not related to the removal of Buhari’s post, but was instead intended to prevent the spread of violence in the country.
So far, internet outages have cost Nigeria $366.9 million, making it the third most economically affected country after India and Myanmar since the shutdowns so far. according to Top10VPN.
“The (suspension) negatively impacted millions of Nigerians who continue their daily activities and operational activities on Twitter,” said SERAP’s Kolawole Oluwadare.
After hearing the case, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) said it prevented the Nigerian government from prosecuting Twitter users.
Uganda ordered an internet shutdown on the eve of the presidential election in January this year, reportedly to prevent outside interference in the election.
The ban was lifted 100 hours later, a move that human rights groups say crippled the livelihoods of Ugandans, especially those in the informal sector who rely on mobile money apps. To date, shutdowns have costs the country nearly US$51.5 million.
Two months later, the East African Law Society (EALS), which brings together more than 18,000 lawyers from seven East African countries, sued the government above the blackout. EALS said the power outage caused significant financial losses and hardships for ordinary Ugandans, affecting online food suppliers and internet-based transportation services, among others.
The outcome of this case has not yet been made public and the EALS was not immediately available for comment.
As the war in Ethiopia intensifies in the northern region of Tigray, human rights groups are calling for the internet to be kept open to monitor human rights violations and keep the economy alive.
In May, when the national elections were postponed for the second time, social media was blocked for eight hours.
Since the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali came to power in April 2018, the digital rights group Access now has recorded 13 shutdowns, sometimes lasting for weeks at a time. In an open letter to the government, it said internet and social media platforms were critical to ensuring that all Ethiopians could participate in democratic processes and hold authorities accountable.
As in other countries, the demand for VPN services in Ethiopia has soared, allowing some internet users to bypass certain restrictions.
VPN usage increased by 340% in the country compared to the previous five days, according to Top10VPN.
(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg. Give credit to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live a free or fair life. Visit http://news.trust.org)