The 21st century has forced an expansion of our vocabulary in ways we have never imagined. New words are constantly added to the English dictionary at a pace which puts in doubt our need for paper dictionaries. For example, the September 2017 update of the Oxford English Dictionary includes more than 1000 new words such as worstest, fungivorous and corporation pop.
Within the digital rights and Internet freedom community, the past five years have forced us to adopt a new word – Internet shutdowns, to explain a new kind of freedom of expression violation used by governments around the world to stifle free speech, among other digital rights. Internet shutdowns are intentional disruptions of Internet services and usually mandated by governments and executed by telecommunications companies or government apparatus itself. Internet disruptions have become a common tool for oppressive regimes across Asia and Africa in recent years. In Africa, they have been implemented to prevent leakage of examination results, to prevent an unofficial release of election results, and to prevent protests by citizens amongst other reasons.
In 2016, there were at least 11 disruptions of Internet services in Africa: Algeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Chad, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Mali, Morocco, Uganda and Zimbabwe all implemented Internet disruptions in 2016. These included total Internet shutdowns and in other cases access to social media apps like Whatsapp and Facebook were blocked. In 2017 there has been 7 Internet disruptions across Africa: Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Mali, Morocco, Senegal and Togo. The two-year trend (2016 – 2017) in Internet disruptions in Africa has revealed that the regions which have led the continent in this digital rights violation have been Central (7 times), West (5 times), North (3 times), East (2 times) and Southern Africa (1 time) respectively.
Within the Internet freedom community, perhaps it is not surprising to see Central Africa take the lead in Internet shutdowns in Africa, given the socio-political situation in the countries in the region. It is clear that the general human rights climate prevalent in a country or region spills over into digital rights. Digital rights advocates must never lose sight of this fact in order to link their advocacy into the broader human rights narrative.
Internet shutdowns are perhaps the cruellest violations of the right to freedom of expression, given the scope of their implementation. And the trend of Internet shutdowns in Central Africa is a wake-up call for civil society working in the region. We must strive to curb this rising threat to freedom of expression with new approaches to advocacy. These strategies include emphasizing the economic losses which Internet shutdowns occasion in our advocacy messages and co-opting Telecommunication companies into the advocacy efforts against Internet shutdowns.