The Battle for a Free Internet in Africa
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Africans’ use of the internet might be costing them access to it.
Earlier this year, Valery Colong Nyiwung lost $10,000 in just three months — almost 10 times the annual per capita income of Cameroon. And it wasn’t from playing the ponies. The only bet the tech entrepreneur made seemed to have winning odds: co-founding ActivSpaces, one of Cameroon’s leading technology hubs and an enterprise — naturally — that’s heavily reliant on reliable internet service. Nyiwung’s bad luck was to establish his company in a West African country where the government “requests” that telecommunications companies shut down the internet whenever it wants to stifle political dissent in certain parts of the country.
Good for repression, bad for business. And Nyiwung is far from alone in his predicament. According to the Brookings Institution, from July 2015 through June 2016, a total of nine internet shutdowns or network disruptions primarily for political reasons in seven African countries cost businesses there more than $400 million. That may not sound like much, but it’s an ominous trend on a continent where internet commerce is poised to contribute as much as $300 billion a year to the African GDP by 2025, according to a report from McKinsey & Company.
A government cannot say that it wants to fully get into the digital economy and treat the essential commodity of that economy in the way we have seen so far.
Julie Owono, Africa Desk, Internet Sans Frontières
A 2015 report from Telegeography showed that international internet growth in Africa continues to outpace other parts of the world, but this growth can only continue when the government understands that “it has more to lose than to win by censoring the internet,” says Julie Owono, head of the Africa Desk at Internet Sans Frontières (Internet Without Borders). “A government cannot say that it wants to fully get into the digital economy and treat the essential commodity of that economy in the way we have seen so far,” says Owono.
The Republic of Congo government blocked access to Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and other platforms on the eve of the re-election of President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who has been in power for more than 30 years, citing “security and national safety of its citizens” as the reason. As a result, the business community there lost more than $72 million in 15 days. In 2016, Uganda’s five days of social media disruption ordered by the Electoral Commission for security reasons cost more than $2 million during voting and the inauguration of five-term president Yoweri Museveni.
Politically motivated shutdowns also have taken place in Gambia, Ethiopia, Chad, Gabon and Burundi. In 2016, Algerian businesses were collateral damage to the tune of more than $20 million when the government disrupted social media for six days as a way to stop students from cheating on exams, according to a report from the Brookings Institution.
Nyiwung describes his offline months with exasperation. And why not? After all, Buea is on the slopes of so-called Silicon Mountain, Cameroon’s tech capital. He’s supposed to be a driver of the new Cameroon economy. And yet those 94 days tell a discouraging tale of revenue lost: contracts in negotiation, time spent on daily two-hour commutes to Douala, where the internet was still up and running, lost opportunities. “I won’t say the cost has been recovered,” Nyiwung writes via WhatsApp, one of the unavailable messenger services during the network disruption. “It will never be recovered.”
Bigger picture, the downtime intended to thwart political dissent cost Cameroon’s economy an estimated $4.5 million, according to Access Now, an advocacy and policy organization dedicated to protecting the individual’s right to an open and free internet. Some experts think that figure doesn’t begin to cover the damage. “[It] doesn’t include the informal economy, which in a country like Cameroon a lot of people rely on to survive,” says Deji Olukotun, global advocacy manager at Access Now. “It doesn’t capture the social unrest that occurs, or the fact that people’s social services are cut off, and they can lose basic opportunities to support themselves.”
Telecommunication companies operating in pull-the-plug countries also have borne the financial brunt of government-mandated network disruptions. Yves Nissim of Orange Cameroon, the country’s second-largest telecommunication company, confirms that the organization lost 20 percent of its normal revenue because of the shutdowns in early 2017. The senior official also stated that two staff members were taken into police custody for unknown reasons, which is why the company complied with the government’s orders. According to Owono, telecommunication companies are faced with a Hobson’s choice: In order to operate in the country, the company agrees to comply with government mandates.
Legally, many African governments have enshrined the right to institute internet shutdowns of any kind. A study by Paradigm Initiative, which profiled 30 African countries, reports that cybersecurity legislation in most of these countries contains vague laws that give the government power to monitor user traffic, access user data, block websites, jail or fine individuals and companies for information shared online or shut down the internet if the government feels that it is in the interest of public safety.
Despite how much the internet has jump-started economies in Africa or created new ones, it doesn’t seem like enough of an incentive for the government to #KeepItOn.