In today’s world, the Internet has become an inherent part of our lives. It is the primary source of communication, information, and entertainment. However, it may happen that the internet shuts down for one reason or the other, leaving us in a state of confusion.
Recently, in Senegal, there was a social media blackout followed by a mobile internet shutdown intentionally ordered by the government to fight against misinformation on social media. We then entered a three-day of curfew-style mobile internet shutdowns in which the measure was imposed from 1 pm to 2 am. While the methods can be questioned, as a digital rights advocate, I wondered what the implications of such decisions were at different levels.
The financial consequences of an internet shutdown are not news to us anymore. Organisations such as NetBlocks have devised measurement tools to evaluate the impact. According to that system of measure, the cost of the shutdown in Senegal is approximately $9,967,774, and these numbers do not include the loss in financial transactions through online banking and mobile money.
However, the social and mental implications of an internet shutdown are less discussed. From a google search about how to deal with such occurrences, the immediate solutions are about downloading offline versions of websites of interest, using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), staying informed etc. These measures often require being proactive in anticipation of a likely network disruption, even though shutdowns often come unexpectedly.
As a survivor of an internet shutdown in Africa, I reflected on the more significant human impact.
Have we become dependent on the Internet for information?
During a shutdown, access to information is vital to monitor one’s safety. Senegal’s shutdown happened in the midst of protests that registered 30+ victims. Being cut off from information instills anxiety when unsure of one’s safety. While radio and television were still available, the biased transmission of information did not suffice for citizens seeking live and verified information. This brings us to think of the internet’s place in the media landscape and netizens’ preference to trust information from digital platforms above those from television, radio and other legacy media platforms.
On the internet, one supposedly has the choice of choosing what they consume and verifying any information that comes their way, even though they might not do so. That sense of freedom of choice does not come with traditional media. In the Senegalese case, many citizens have lost trust in the media.
The Idea of Choice and the Internet
One concept I pondered during the shutdown was the idea of choice. As an internet user, I have bought my data bundle to stay connected, whether for work, education, information, communication, or all of the above. Suddenly, I found myself restricted from access to these things I chose to use for my benefit. In reflecting on this and with my political science background, I could not resist linking this to the social contract. In political theory, the social contract is a hypothetical agreement between individuals to form a society where they willingly give up certain freedoms in exchange for protection and the benefits of living within a governed system. As an extension of the Hobbesian and Lockean theories, the state has the “monopoly over instruments of coercion” in the social contract. Consent to give away our power to the state is assumed as citizens of any country. When we speak of instruments of coercion to ensure the security of a nation-state, we think of war, peace and order through different institutions. However, we have a newcomer in the land of instruments of coercion: The Internet. The internet has become a tool for freedom for citizens of the world and antagonistically for oppression for some governments. Have we given up our power to use the internet freely based on our own principles to the state for the sake of security?
Mental Health and Distractions
While internet shutdowns are an unfortunate and discouraged measure, many lessons can be learned from staying without the internet for a few days. Recently my colleague, Nnenna, who is Chief Operating Officer at Paradigm Initiative, spoke to the team about “indistractability” and how we have become comfortable with the distractions social media and other external triggers offer. The concept, based on the book by Nir Eyal, teaches us about controlling our distraction triggers and building a schedule around our values. One sentiment that often arose to me during the shutdown was “nostalgia.” The nostalgia for activities I used to take up when younger, like journaling, playing board games, spending quality time with family and reading. We replaced many of our activities with their online versions and distractions; even Ludo, a core memory of my childhood during Ramadan, is now played online. While it is an excellent way of connecting with people from all over the world, the joy of physical interactions is a treasurable sensation that I got to experience again after a long time. The impact and part the internet has in our lives is one concept to reflect on as with all technological advancements: How do we utilise these tools to the best of our interests without losing what makes us human?
On a final note, it is more than ever essential to advocate for internet freedom. Many forums and platforms have been created to give space for conversations around internet governance and how to counter digital rights violations. Paradigm Initiative has been an active player in the network by setting up Ayeta and Ripoti, two crucial tools for understanding digital rights and reporting violations.
While the UN has clarified in 2016 that access to the internet is a human right and that “measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online (is) in violation of international human rights law,” many of our governments across the world and notably in Africa are yet to come afloat with that idea. I hope that more actionable steps are taken towards making the Internet an instrument of freedom and peace rather than fear and oppression.
The writer is Paradigm Initiative’s Programs Officer, Francophone West Africa