China’s internet and social media censorship are coming to Africa as dictatorship on the continent once again seems to be rearing its head again.
After the Congolese went to the polls late last year to replace longtime president Joseph Kabila, they did not expect what was to come next.
Weeks before the disputed polls’ winner was announced, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was plunged into internet darkness.
In the uncertainty, the Congolese kept pointlessly refreshing their web browsers.
China already has a foothold in the blindingly natural-resource wealthy Congo and after the elections, Chinese-crafted cyberspace rules came to play.
While it is not evident that the Chinese had a hand in switching off the internet, this case is a harbinger of what is to come to Africa if China is let loose on the continent where only eSwatini has refused their development-and ‘aid’.
Chinese control tactics in Africa
Across Africa, internet and social media shutdowns are becoming the norm as dictatorships seek to control people’s activities online.
China has for decades muzzled its people from airing divergent opinions that differ from their government and this seems to be the model that is taking in root in Africa.
Barnabe Kikaya bin Karubi, a senior adviser to DRC President, Joseph Kabila, was quoted by Reuters saying that the shutdown which also affected text messaging services was to maintain public order.
This after what he said were “fictitious results” circulating on social media emphasizing that the Congo would remain offline until the publication of full results on January 6.
Karubi said that having the communication channels open would lead the country ‘straight toward chaos’.
According to Access Now, an international digital rights group, internet shutdowns have sharply increased around the world from 75 in 2016 to almost 190 last year.
The most affected regions by these shutdowns are Africa and Asia. Between January 2017 and March 2018, Cameroon experienced the longest shutdown spending 230 days without internet access.
The DRC, Sudan and Cameroon have reported partial or full internet shutdown in the past three months.
Public safety, stopping the spreading of illegal content and national security
Access Now says that public safety, stopping the spreading of illegal content and national security, are the three tenets being used by governments to shut off internet access.
In Kenya, the government has applied this tactic severally especially during terror attacks or when investigations into questionable dealings are highlighted online.
The methods behind an internet shutdown, particularly a complete one, are fairly simple. The government simply orders internet service providers (ISPs) to stop their connections — it’s like turning off a home modem, but for the entire country.
In neighbouring Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni said that security measures to avert lies meant to incite violence and illegal declaration of election results led to the country being shit off from the internet in 2016.
Before the Ugandan government passed a new law to tax internet users, officials had travelled to Beijing to learn how to control social media from Chinese censors.
In Uganda, internet users must pay 200 Ugandan shillings ($0.05) a day to use popular platforms like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.
Financial and emotional costs of internet shutdowns
According to NetBlocks, a civil society organization, internet shutdowns not only cut off people’s access to information but they come with a heavy financial cost.
NetBlocks reports that a single day’s outage in the Congo alone can lead to an upwards of more than USD 3 million in losses.
The Internet Society and Netblocks have developed a tool for measuring the financial costs of internet shutdowns.
Estimates show that the shutdowns come not only with a financial cost but also with emotional stress since governments often deny entire populations access to communication when they need it most.
China has perfected that art of shutdowns with Xinjiang being its first major political shutdowns showdown.
The far-west region of China has for long been Beijing’s testing ground for the country’s surveillance and censorship policies.
In July 2009, protests and riots broke out in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi and China did what it knows best by shutting down internet access, international phone and text messaging services for almost a year.
The shutdown was justified on the grounds of security.
China’s military newspaper the China National Defense Daily said the shutdown was justifiable because it “is becoming urgent to strengthen internet control. This is to avoid the internet becoming a new poisoned arrow for hostile forces.”
Huawei’s influence in Africa
With the Americans fearing that Huawei could have an ulterior mission especially stealing government and corporate secrets, the company is heavily investing in Africa.
From offering training to funding institutions, Huawei, despite being a private company could very much turn out to be what the Americans fear. This could be on a large scale on the African continent.
Already, the Chinese are accused of installing bugs at the AU Headquarters in Addis Ababa but not African leader has questioned this.
Quartz Africa reports that the hack wasn’t detected until January 2017.
“Technicians noticed that between midnight and 2 am every night, there was a peak in data usage even though the building was empty. After investigating, it was found that the continental organization’s confidential data was being copied on to servers in Shanghai.”
Huawei and ZTE are extensively involved in Africa’s internet. The state-backed firms are building internet infrastructure and backbones in Africa.
This means that the AU building bugging, which the Chinese have refuted, could just be the beginning of a long journey into the dark world of the internet controlled by China.
Despite the Chinese giant telco refuting spy claims and committing to cybersecurity excellence, it is not proof enough that this will this fly in the face of unforeseen hacking terror.
The Sudanese, the Cameroonians and the Congolese have had a taste of Chinese control over the internet. Will this spread to the rest of the continent?
You can also read how the Ethiopian government was in trouble following an internet outage and Google providing 4G LTE internet services to Uganda.