What started as a partial Internet restriction of WhatsApp and other social media services has now escalated into a full shutdown of the Internet in Zimbabwe. This finally happened on the second day of the #ShutdownZimbabwe protests against high standards of living, fuel price increases, and more on 15 January 2019.

On 15 January 2019, the first day of the protests around Zimbabwe, only a few social media sites were restricted. Even then, these could still be accessed if a user had a VPN client installed on their mobile phone or computer.

"This morning (15 January 2019) I was informed that the authorities in Zimbabwe have directed that all Internet services be shut down.  As it was a written directive issued in terms of the law, non-compliance would result in immediate imprisonment of management on the ground. Last week we were issued with a similar order in the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC]. We complied as directed.  Whenever such directives are issued, management calls in the legal teams and review them in terms of the law. I’m fasting and praying for Zimbabwe, DRC, and Sudan today. We have staff in all these countries, and we love our customers. Please, please, stay safe," reads a message posted by Strive Masiyiwa, Founder of Econet, on his Facebook page.

Where do we draw the line?

Econet are not the only telecommunications company in Zimbabwe that was ordered to shutdown Internet services by the government. TelOne, the second largest telco in Zimbabwe, NetOne and ZOL also received directives from the government to shut down Internet services. However, it appears that out of the 4 companies, only Econet and TelOne (the 2 largest telecommunications service providers in Zimbabwe) had a complete Internet shutdown while NetOne and ZOL seem to have only implemented partial restrictions on social media and messaging services such as WhatsApp and Facebook.

As confirmed by Masiyiwa, Internet restrictions or shutdowns are effected on the issuing of a directive by governments to telecommunications companies. In each case, these letters will quote an Act they say is relevant in such a case, oft times relating to state security or something similar, and in each case, we have observed in Afrika, the companies comply.

This is true in Zimbabwe's current shutdown too.

"Further to a written warrant issued by the Minister of State in the Office of the President and Cabinet, through the Director General Of The President’s Dept. responsible for National Security, acting in terms of Section 6, of the Interception of Communications Act, Internet Services and related applications such as WhatsApp, Twitter etc., are currently suspended across all telecommunications networks, and Internet Service Providers. Failure to comply would result in 3 years imprisonment for members of local management in terms of section 6:2 (b), " reads part of the directive issues to Econet, TelOne, NetOne, and ZOL.

This then begs the question, where do we draw the line and have citizens or the companies concerned take the state to the courts to fight these Internet shutdown directives?

As we've seen repeatedly, Internet shutdowns have little to do with state security but rather suppressing citizens' rights to freedom of speech as far as speaking against the current government and organizing protests against the current government.

Internet freedom

To date, there haven't been any solutions to this growing problem in Afrika which, before Zimbabwe, was also witnessed when in December 2018 authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) shut down the Internet just before elections took place until results were announced. However, there has been one proposal that has caught my interest.

In 2017, Andrew Alston, Group Head of IP Strategy at Liquid Telecommunications, along with two of his colleagues in the telecommunications industry, submitted a proposal to the African Network Information Centre (AfriNIC). The proposal suggests that Afrikan governments that shut down the Internet need to be punished by denying them IP addresses.

The proposal is good in that it suggests some action to be taken against the guilty governments. However, in the process of denying them IP addresses, the citizens are indirectly punished too.

Given how important the Internet has become in our lives, perhaps we need to start seriously thinking about who and how Internet services are provisioned in each country. The current power and legal dynamics between telecommunications companies and governments don't seem to be conducive to a free Internet.

Updates

19 January 2019 - Anonymous kickstarts DDoS protest against Zimbabwe's government

21 January 2019 - Lorian Synaro of Anonymous explains the motive behind #OpSudan and #OpZimbabwe

21 January 2019 - Zimbabwe's High Court rules that Internet shutdown was illegal


Cover image credit: Twitter

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