Editor’s Note: James Griffiths is a Senior Producer for CNN International and author of “The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet.”
As citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) pointlessly refresh their web browsers this week, they may be getting a preview of just what Chinese-crafted cyberspace rules look like.
The DRC on Monday became the latest country to cut its people off from the internet, as voters await the results of this weekend’s highly-contested presidential election.
Internet and social media shutdowns have become more and more common across Africa and Asia in recent years, particularly as authoritarian governments look to China as the model for controlling what people can say and do online.
Speaking to Reuters Tuesday, a senior adviser to DRC President Joseph Kabila, said internet and text messaging services were shut down to preserve public order after “fictitious results” were circulated on social media.
Barnabe Kikaya bin Karubi told the news agency that the country would remain offline until full results were published on January 6. Doing otherwise could “lead us straight toward chaos,” he added.
In a joint statement, US, European Union, Canadian and Swiss diplomats called on the Congolese government to refrain “from blocking means of communication, in particular access to the internet and the media.”
Internet shutdowns have spiked sharply around the world in recent years, rising from 75 in 2016 to almost 190 last year, according to international digital rights group Access Now.
“(We’ve seen an) increased number of intentional, government-sponsored internet disruptions in the past three years,” Access Now’s Melody Patry told CNN. “The techniques used by governments to shut down the internet vary, from total blackouts to targeted throttling or blocking of specific applications.”
Africa and Asia are the worst affected regions, with the longest recent shutdown happening in Cameroon when Anglophone regions of the country spent 230 days without internet access between January 2017 and March 2018.
In the past three months, partial or full internet and social media shutdowns have been reported in the DRC, Sudan, and Cameroon, according to civil society organization NetBlocks.
The effects of an internet shutdown go beyond simply cutting off people’s access to information.
A tool developed by NetBlocks and the Internet Society for measuring the financial costs of a shutdown estimates a day’s outage in Congo alone can cause losses of more than $3 million.
“Shutdowns are a blunt instrument for interrupting the spread of disinformation online,” Washington-based Freedom House said in a report last year. “By cutting off service during such incidents, governments often deny entire cities and provinces access to communication tools at a time when they may need them the most, whether to dispel rumors, check in with family members, or avoid dangerous areas.”
Protecting ‘national security’
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.
Shutdowns can even happen accidentally, such as when one of the undersea fiber-optic cables which connect much of the world is damaged. This happened in 2008, cutting off a large swath of the Middle East from the global web.
One of the first major political shutdowns occurred in Xinjiang, a region in far-west China long used by Beijing as a testing ground for its censorship and surveillance policies.
After protests and riots broke out in the regional capital Urumqi in July 2009, internet access to all of Xinjiang – along with international phone and text messaging services – was cut off for almost a year.
This was justified on the grounds of security, with the military newspaper China National Defense Daily warning the riots “once again demonstrates that it is becoming urgent to strengthen internet control. This is to avoid the internet becoming a new poisoned arrow for hostile forces.”
Similar justifications have been made by other countries following China’s lead. According to Access Now, the top three reasons given for internet shutdowns are “public safety,” stopping the spreading of illegal content and “national security.”
In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni defended a 2016 shutdown as a “security measure to avert lies … intended to incite violence and illegal declaration of election results.”
Last year, Museveni’s government passed a new tax on social media, under which users must pay 200 Ugandan shillings ($0.05) a day to use popular platforms like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. Ugandan officials previously traveled to Beijing to learn from Chinese censors how to control social media, with government minister Evelyn Anite saying the country was “helpless” in the face of criminals using the web to “commit crimes with impunity.”
China is heavily involved in Africa’s internet, with state-backed firms like Huawei and ZTE building internet backbones and other infrastructure for countries across the continent. This assistance often goes hand-in-hand with filtering technologies and advice on how to control online dissent.
In its report last year, Freedom House warned “a cohort of countries is moving toward digital authoritarianism by embracing the Chinese model of extensive censorship and automated surveillance systems.”
It pointed to trainings run by Beijing for foreign officials on internet policy and controls. “While it is not always clear what transpires during such seminars, a training for Vietnamese officials in April 2017 was followed in 2018 by the introduction of a cybersecurity law that closely mimics China’s own law,” the report said.
“Increased activity by Chinese companies and officials in Africa similarly preceded the passage of restrictive cybercrime and media laws in Uganda and Tanzania over the past year.”
Patry, the Access Now expert, said that China “has been pushing for a controlled internet” in international debates. The most recent example of this was at the annual World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, southern China.
Long a roadshow for China’s internet control policies, attendees at the latest conference – including hundreds of government officials from African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries – agreed to work towards “new global rules and norms for cyberspace while respecting nations’ sovereignty in cyberspace.”
As citizens of the DRC are discovering, however, with more and more leaders hostile towards internet freedom and keen to follow China’s model, new global rules crafted by Beijing are likely to benefit censors – not users.