Internet Shutdowns Are Now Just Another Weapon in the Dictator's Arsenal

A protester in Khartoum this May after the military delayed ceding power again.
Photo: Getty

Last month, two high-ranking Ethiopian officials were murdered in an attempted coup. The consequences of the murders quickly rippled out into cyberspace, a bloody illustration of the diverging lines between the internet and the physical world.

The country’s army chief of staff, Seare Mekonnen, and a retired general were shot and killed by Mekonnen’s bodyguard. The head of the northern state of Amhara, Ambachew Mekonnen, and his adviser was killed on the same night, Reuters reported.

Within hours, internet access across Ethiopia was down.

It’s a script that’s played out at least five more times in African nations this year: Unrest, coups, and uprisings are met with internet shutdowns by authorities aiming to sure up control.

Advertisement

The new year rang in with a contested election in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The fireworks went off, and the internet promptly went down, according to the American tech firm Oracle. An attempted coup in Gabon in January prompted a national internet blackout by the country’s military. Protests later that month in Zimbabwe were met with an internet shutdown. Elections in Benin this April were followed by protests—and then an internet shutdown.

Internet shutdowns are now just another tool for governments in Africa and around the world when facing existential crises — both real and perceived.

Advertisement

Other governments have blocked specific parts of the internet like social media. Chad’s government blocked social media for over a year by order of dictator Idriss Déby.

Internet shutdowns are a frequently used weapon because they cut off oxygen for opposition movements. Anyone viewed as an opponent by these governments suddenly finds it much more difficult to communicate both with each other and with the outside world that they often depend on for resources, information, and political pressure.

Advertisement

China, a world leader in internet censorship, is increasingly connected to African nations both politically, economically, and technologically. That accounts for some of the change. But the Asian country with the most frequent internet shutdowns has been India, according to a 2018 report by Freedom House, with over 100 shutdown incidents last year alone.

The technology and civil rights group Access Now documented a steep rise in government-directed internet shutdowns over the last four years, finding a jump from 75 in 2016 to 188 in 2018, a 150 percent increase. It’s a route the authorities in charge most often take to stifle protest. Africa and Asia are where shutdowns take place most frequently, the organization found.

Advertisement

Some of the most impactful shutdowns this year have come in Sudan, a country whose military ousted the 30-year-dictator Omar al-Bashir in April. Since then, the Sudanese military has retained bloody control. Internet blackouts marked the protests leading up to al-Bashir’s fall and, ever since he was removed in April, internet shutdowns have punctuated dramatic protests in the country’s capital, according to Oracle.

Internet access in Sudan remains dicey. While the country has seen government-mandated shutdowns before, this one has been accompanied by a full month of unrest and killings. This reportedly includes killings by the country’s Transitional Military Council, according to Access Now’s Berhan Taye who reported the military was confiscating and destroying mobile phones and other electronic devices as early as last month.

Advertisement

Over the weekend, pro-democracy protesters clashed with police and seven people died.

Advertisement

Last month, dozens of protesters were killed in the capital city of Khartoum as they demanded the military hand control of the country to civilians. Sudanese academics called the military’s violence against the protesters a “bloody massacre.”

Share This Story

About the author

Patrick Howell O'Neill

Reporter in Silicon Valley. Contact me: Email poneill@gizmodo.com, Signal +1-650-488-7247