Uganda, Ethiopia, Egypt… the hidden cost of internet blackouts
By Eman El-Sherbiny
(Theafricareport)—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.
Almost a decade later and the modus operandi continues to be peddled as a quick fix for freedom of speech and expression. Most recently, Uganda experienced social media restrictions before a complete internet shutdown that lasted from 13-18 January 2021, according to the NetBlocks Internet Observatory. And even then, some social media and testing platforms were blocked for a few more days.
The blackout happened during the presidential elections as voters rushed to the polls and throughout the vote counting process. The results predictably came out in favour of incumbent president Yoweri Musevani, which was contested by the opposition, namely Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, the former musician-cum-presidential candidate known as Bobi Wine.
The lack of media coverage curtailed knowledge of opposition arrests.
Quelling communication is one thing, but in an increasingly internet-dependent society, it was only a matter of time before the digital economy was harmed. According to the NetBlocks tool, developed in partnership with the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), the six-day internet outage cost the East African country over USh39bn (nearly $11m).
Education, an early casualty
Students are often the collateral during such blackouts, especially as dependence on online learning during the pandemic has become a central teaching and communications tool.
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During this latest round of Uganda’s internet blackout, 19-year old student Ziada Omino at Nsaka University in Jinja missed her deadline for entry into a foreign university. “I was really frustrated when I missed the scholarship funding panel on 14 January. I knew later on that there is a second one in two months, but I should not worry about internet access on top of the scholarship itself,” adds Omino.
For Mina Shahid, co-founder and CEO of Numida, a Kampala-based mobile platform that offers digital and financial services to semi-formal African MSBs, the blackout was sudden and damaging.
“Our business effectively stopped operating for [those five] days. Everything we do requires the internet. It is not yet known how much revenue we lost but none of our systems were operational offline. Any tech-enabled company in Uganda faced the same issues,” Shahid tells The Africa Report.
Shahid adds that they tried contacting their clients via phone, but were unable to access Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tools to obtain customer information. “This is very concerning and will no doubt become a blueprint for authoritarian rulers globally,” says Shahid.
“To this day, [four] weeks later, social media and teleconferencing software is still turned off so everyone is using VPNs to do their work. As a result of the President’s actions we are currently creating systems that will work offline in case this happens again.”
Shahid says he is concerned about sustaining business in Uganda and hints at the possibility of expanding elsewhere since it is “harder to justify investing in the country with increasing economic volatility”. He adds: “It is extremely unfortunate that the ruling class does not understand how their actions will negatively affect Uganda’s economic development.”
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.
*Name changed for security reasons