Almost every part of everyday life involves the Internet. In many parts of the World, internet connections have gone from being a luxury to a necessity. The COVID pandemic has brought into clear view the necessity of being linked to the outside Internet for survival and general sanity.
Digital transformation has been a significant agenda item for the government, with the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed taking a personal interest in the matter. The Internet was a necessity to disseminate and access information and follow up business activities such as upkeeping of supply chains and e-commerce, remote banking, or the ability to contact friends and family. Ironically, the Prosperity regime is also suffocating access to the Internet to limit the use of social media, which it accuses of fueling political tensions in the country. In this article, EBR’s Eden Teshome assesses the paradox of digital aspiration and the limited Internet access on which digital services heavily depend.
In Ethiopia, the vast majority of the people need access to information of their choice. Underdevelopment of the Media and low level of urbanisation are two significant causes for this. The advent of social media is changing that in a way. However, in recent times, many people have been unable to log into their social networks, such as Facebook, Tik Tok, Telegram, and YouTube, for months. These platforms have since become essential tools for the media to communicate information, for people to stay in touch with friends and family, and for businesses to promote their goods and services.
Although Ethiopia’s IT sector has recently expanded, and the Ethiopian government has implemented ambitious strategies to digitise its economy, internet freedom must improve for investment and innovation to flourish. Accessing the tools and resources they need to expand their enterprises are extremely difficult for local business owners. Foreign investors are hesitant to invest in a country where internet access is unreliable and has the risk of being arbitrarily discontinued for a while.
Bethlehem Wodajo graduated from Unity University in 2019 with a degree in marketing. She established an online business after graduating with the gift money her family and friends gave her at her graduation.
“I have a brother who lives in the US, so whenever he comes by to visit, he usually brings me perfume, chocolates, and clothing,” Bethlehem told EBR. “So I created a Telegram channel and started posting the items and selling them without renting a shop.”
After a while, she started receiving orders from Shine.com, H&M, and Zara, and business was booming. She even started sending products outside Addis Ababa because she is getting orders from several other towns. However, recently, because of internet censorship, she can only access Telegram using a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which impacts my customers’ online activity as some have switched to WhatsApp and do not use Telegram as frequently as they used to.
“There has been a decrease in sales due to the goods I upload receiving fewer views and fewer interactions with my customers,” she complains.
She has to wait patiently for the day when internet access will be as unrestricted as it once was, but in the meantime, she only takes pre-orders from a few of her clients.
Ethiopia’s economy endured a loss of USD 145.8 million in 2022 for intermittent connectivity and internet blockage. The country suffered a USD 100 million loss due to its internet shutdown in 2020. After that, 21.3 million customers were affected by the USD164.5 million in 2021. According to estimates, more than a million people have been directly impacted, placing Ethiopia in the same list where countries such as Russia, Iran, and Myanmar are categorised.
It is not the first time Ethiopian authorities have shut down the Internet entirely or restricted access to several websites and services. They are not acting alone in this, either.
About ten years ago, the government made it a habit of shutting down social media sites by either slowing down the Internet or blocking users out of access. One of the most notable cases occurred in 2016 when the government temporarily shut down the Internet after massive protests in the states of Oromia and Amhara, two of the biggest states in the country. The government accuses Social Media of being a platform for spreading false information that, at times, is used to incite widespread violence.
The economy lost up to USD 123 million due to the shutdown, which prevented firms from operating and caused disruptions to critical services. It had enormous economic effects since businesses needed internet connections to function. The closure also impacted banks, hospitals, and other crucial services resulted in considerable disruption and frustration.
Last year, at least twenty-three countries implemented internet blackouts, shut down social media sites, or used throttling (reducing internet speed to a point where only voice calls and SMS were permitted). The cost to these economies is projected to be USD 24 billion, involving 710 million people and lasting more than 50,000 hours.
Internet shutdowns are a means to wipe out online communication, which instantly impacts day-to-day functioning in an increasingly digital world. However, they also have significant and severe knock-on effects on democratic movements and sometimes with a view of shielding violence, as reporting crime and contacting support becomes hard to do while the Internet is not on. In 2022, 35 countries shut down the Internet at least 187 times. Thirty-three of these 35 countries are repeat offenders, according to the Guardian, a newspaper in the UK. Authorities around the World shut down the Internet due to “protests, active conflict, examinations, elections, political instability, and other high-profile national events” in 2022.
Over two years, the State of Tigray of Ethiopia experienced the most prolonged internet outage in history.
When Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) ordered a military offensive against local forces in Tigray, which quickly descended into civil war, and the shutdowns started. In order to stop the crisis from spreading to nearby states Amhara and Afar, the administration has also ordered internet shutdowns in those areas. More than 5 million people live in Tigray, which has been mostly cut off from the Internet, cell phones, and banking since the war began. Furthermore, it has cost the economy roughly USD 400 million.
Many of these countries implement such policies when there are election tensions, political turmoil that leads to protests and restrictions on free speech. Ethiopia is one of the four countries that implement limits on cyberspace to curb press freedom and manage information during protests, according to a report by Top10vpn, which tracks internet outages.
Countries that frequently censor and shut down the Internet have some traits in common, such as authoritarianism, a concentration of political power, and substantial restrictions on media and the Internet. These countries place a higher value on nationalism than international collaboration and place military and security considerations ahead of political and free speech rights.
“In a time filled with misinformation and hate speech, there is heated debate over whether, when, and how to censor content on the Internet, as well as when it might be appropriate,” says a lawyer who works at the United Nations in Addis Ababa, on condition of anonymity.
According to the legal expert, even if the so-called problems are real, they are no longer the ones cited by the government as justification for the internet outage. Therefore, the action is not justified, necessary, or proportionate. According to the ICCPR’s articles 19 and 20 on freedom of expression, restrictions should only be imposed on individuals who have violated those principles unless they are justifiable. However, what is currently happening in our country is illegal, does not make sense, is exaggerated, and is harming the lives of individuals.
Citizens have a right to access information both online and offline. However, this right is not absolute and may be subject to restrictions depending on the circumstances.
“From the human rights perspective, this is a breach of their rights and opens the door for violating other rights,” the lawyer told EBR. “There must be a good justification to censor or ban the Internet. Let us imagine there is a page that disseminates false information or inappropriate material; the government should prohibit that one account, not the entire page, rather than shutting down an entire country’s or a city’s Internet.”
Other African nations are losing millions of dollars to the internet gagging trend. Due to the government’s ongoing use of internet outages to suppress pro-democracy rallies following a military coup in October, Sudan lost USD 17.8 million last year.
“As rallies were put down and demonstrators were slain, internet connectivity was turned off twice in early January and once more in June.” reads a report by TopVPN. “To stop exam cheating, the Sudanese government purposefully shut down the internet 11 times in June.”
The government of Burkina Faso also cut off the Internet for 380 hours, excluding around 4 million people and costing the country a total of USD 12.6 million. It took this action after a
Military coup attempt failed, there was unrest, and the army declared that it was in total control of Burkina Faso.
Before the limitation, there is also the access challenge. Access to more knowledge, social networks, and resources via the Internet enhances the potential for a successful education, profession, and health. These strive to raise people’s standards of living and make a favourable impact on the economy as a whole by raising talent, productivity, and GDP. Internet usage is, therefore, fundamentally a public service.
However, most developing countries still need access to these benefits, and their connectivity could be more balanced. 90Pct of the 2.9 billion people who are still offline are in developing nations.
Inequalities among previously marginalised groups, such as people with low incomes, women and young, are also made worse by a lack of digital inclusion, especially in rural areas, where they are further left behind in the new digital era. Making things even worse, several governments also use Internet censorship and blocking for various reasons.
11th Year • June 2023 • No. 118 EBR