Africa: Facebook Criticises Internet Shutdowns in the Continent

14 February 2021

Facebook has condemned the long internet shutdowns and social media blackouts experienced in Tanzania, Chad, Ethiopia and Uganda between January 2020 and February 2021, terming them counterintuitive and a violation of human rights in the digital age.

The social media giant's East Africa Spokesperson Janet Kemboi decried how internet blackouts in Africa have disrupted access to services like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, hurting democracy in the process and contravening freedom of speech and expression.

"We strongly oppose shutdowns, throttling, and other disruptions of the internet. We are deeply concerned by the trend towards this approach in some African countries. Even temporary disruptions of internet services have tremendous, negative human rights, economic and social consequences," Ms Kemboi told the Nation.

The United Nations recognises access to the internet as an enabler of a broad range of human rights - from freedom of expression, to freedom of information, the right to assembly and association, the right to access health care and the right to an adequate standard of living through economic activity.

Internet disruption

A 2020 internet disruption report by British tech research firm Comparitech has established that internet takedowns in Africa often happen during electioneering periods or civil unrest.

Incumbent governments in Tanzania and Uganda used internet switch offs as a weapon against a rising opposition, to ensure they restrict the flow of information thereby getting reelected against the will of voters.

According to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, governments are required to adhere to their international human rights commitments.

It requires nations to ensure that any restrictions on freedom of expression--including disruptions of internet service--are only carried out in exceptional circumstances and that they meet the thresholds of legality, necessity, and proportionality.

Facebook said connectivity and access to internet-based apps and services can aid governments in times of crisis but wondered why some African countries were doing the exact opposite.

"Similarly, the internet-- social media and messaging services in particular--helps people know whether their families and friends are safe in the aftermath of natural disasters and other crises. This reduces panic," the company said in a statement.

Ms Kemboi noted that more deleterious to the growth of Africa's digital economy is the impediment of startup culture which largely depends on connectivity to access global markets.

"These shutdowns undermine economic activity and growth of SMEs. They bring the startup ecosystem to a standstill," she remarked.

For John Walubengo, ICT lecturer at MultiMedia University of Kenya, internet interference goes beyond a negative economic impact and abuse of power by governments riding on anarchy.

"The biggest impact actually goes beyond the immediate economic impact. There is the low score on future competitiveness of that country in terms of investor confidence. Investing in any sector in that country will be a weak investment option since operations can be switched off at the will of one individual," he says.

He opines that while national security concerns are valid government reasons to trigger a shutdown, there must be thresholds and processes observed towards effecting any blackout.

"Governments should ensure the nature of the shutdown is commensurate to the threat. You cannot shutdown internet in the whole of Kenya, when maybe riots are only happening in Kibera or Mathare. You only need localized shutdowns and even then for a predictable period of time," Mr Walubengo who is also a data protection officer at Ajua Africa said.

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