The Kenyan Government Will Only Shut Down The Internet During Elections 'If Things Get Out Of Hand'

Kenyan social media users will come under increased surveillance as the country prepares for the general election scheduled for August, the country's Communications Authority warned.

In addition to keeping track of hate speech online and on social media, the Communications Authority will monitor mobile communications.

"We are using all possible means not to reach a level where the country can be in tension and force us maybe to take a drastic step," CAK director general Francis Wangusi told the media at a press conference on Thursday.

"We are coordinating with international organisations to get those infiltrating from outside. We have pulled down a number of posts from social media platforms by Kenyans in the diaspora. Francis Wangusi, CAK Director-General

CAK chairman Mr Ben Gituku said that the authority recognizes the importance of social media platforms, and was quick to clarify that the government was not planning to shut down the internet during the election period unless online hate speech and incitement got out of hand and 'threatened national security'.

"We hope we will not get there. Unless it gets out of hand, we do not see an Internet shutdown happening," Mr Gituku added.

Cases of intolerance among Kenyans using social media have been on the rise as the August Elections approach. Reports of fake accounts abound, with users already spreading messages of hate aimed at opposite sides of the political divide. The ease with which anyone can post anything they want online, coupled with the relative anonymity of these accounts means that they are often abused by those seeking to stir up trouble online.

We don't believe it is our intention to deter people from communicating. Sometimes, when tension is high, the government may decide to take an action for purposes of protecting the people of Kenya from any adverse outcomes caused by those who want to cause trouble. Francis Wangusi, CAK Director-General

The Communications Authority estimates that there are up to 37.7 million internet connections as at June 2016, the majority of these being smartphones. In order to monitor all this internet traffic, the authority has acquired surveillance systems worth KES2 billion (US$19 million) meant to monitor online and offline communication networks during the election period.

"We have also spent around KES600 million (US$5.7 million) on a social media monitoring system and Sh400 million (US$3.8 million) on a device management system that will help us closely monitor mobile phones and the activities around them," said Wangusi.

This move has triggered some debate on whether or not the government is infringing on the privacy of its citizens.

Mr Wangusi was quick to allay these fears, stating that the sensitive nature of the election period and Kenya's history of electoral violence necessitated the move. He further added that the Constitution ostensibly forbids spreading of propaganda for war, inciting violence and spreading of hate speech.

Politically-driven Internet shutdowns

Last year's elections in The Gambia, Uganda, and the Republic of Congo saw internet shutdowns, where governments directed the authorities in charge of communications to shut off internet access and social media.

In the worst cases, internet shutdowns have been associated with human rights violations, Deji Olukotun, senior global advocacy manager at digital rights organisation Access Now, said.

There were periods of unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia that saw either social media sites or all access to the internet cut off.

Social media has been used in the past to organize protests and coordinate actions that governments could see as a threat, and the knee-jerk reaction to cut off all access threatens freedom of expression, and leads to an information vacuum that could potentially trigger the spread of false information.

Campaigners for internet freedom are calling on governments to keep the internet accessible, using the #KeepItOn hashtag.

The Economic Implications

The Brookings Institution estimates that there were 81 short-term internet shutdowns in 19 countries between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016, costing the global economy at least US$2.4 billion.

Ethiopia's internet shutdown in October 2016 cost the country US$500,000 in lost GDP. Kenya's neighbour Uganda lost $2 million when it disrupted the internet for five days during the election and subsequent swearing in of President Yoweri Museveni. Morocco lost $320 million after disrupting the internet for 182 days, while the Republic of Congo lost $72 million for 15 days.

Kenya stands to lose billions if the shutdown extends to mobile communications as was seen in other countries. This is because the country's service-based economy is dependent on communications, and transactions amounting to billions of shillings are conducted through mobile money every day.

The government, therefore, has the responsibility to evaluate the economic significance of social media platforms vis-à-vis the threat they pose to national security before any measures are taken to clamp down on internet access in the run-up to the General Election.

Cover Image: Francis Wangusi, CAK Director-General

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