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Zimbabwe Government Blocks Internet to Suppress Protests, Cuts Power as a Result

This latest example of a government restricting Internet access to control its citizenry had unintended consequences

3 min read
Protesters sing during a demonstration outside the Zimbabwean Embassy in Pretoria on January 16, 2019.
Protesters sing during a demonstration outside the Zimbabwean Embassy in Pretoria on January 16, 2019.
Photo: Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty Images

The government of Zimbabwe cut its citizen’s access to the Internet for 24 hours beginning mid-morning Tuesday in a bid to quell violent protests on Monday over government-ordered doubling of both petrol and diesel fuel prices last Saturday.

According to the Irish Times, the government ordered the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe to block Internet access provided by Zimbabwe’s two largest ISPs, Econet and TelOne. The intention was to prevent citizens from using social media to organize protests similar to those that erupted on Monday.

What happened next is a case study of the impact of unintended consequences and humanity’s ever-increasing reliance on the Internet. A Bloomberg story reports that because Zimbabweans use the Internet to pay for their electricity on a daily basis, many homes lost their electricity along with Internet access. The story states that most Zimbabweans use Econet Wireless ZimbabweEcocash mobile-phone payment system to purchase “electricity in units of $5 or less and almost all domestic users are on prepaid meters, so many buy for $1 at a time.”

The United States Embassy in Zimbabwe condemned the government’s action, which did lift some Internet restrictions on Wednesday evening. However, access to social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter apparently is still restricted. Many Zimbabweans have been using virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent the restrictions, but reports say that the government has blocked that workaround as well.

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The South African news site fin 24 reported that Zimbabwe's Deputy Minister for Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Energy Mutodi claimed on national television that the government had not blocked the Internet, but it had gone down because of increased traffic. However, the same report noted that Econet founder Strive Masiyiwa confessed on his Facebook page that the government had indeed ordered the Internet blockage; to refuse would have meant jail for Econet’s management, he said.

The Zimbabwean government’s action follows in the wake of the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo decision to cut access to the Internet and text messaging for two days at the beginning of the year to quell expected protests over the preliminary results of its highly-contested presidential election. The election, which was the first in 18 years, has been filled with accusations of wide-spread voting fraud.

A Financial Timesanalysis of leaked voting data showed that second place finisher, Martin Fayulu, had actually won the election with a clear majority over last week’s declared winner, Felix Tshisekedi. The DRC’s electoral commission denied that the election results were fraudulent. Unless something drastic happens, Tshisekedi will be inaugurated as president this coming Tuesday.

The UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council have adopted multiple resolutions, including this one [PDF] passed in 2016, unequivocally condemning actions that “intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law, and calls upon all States to refrain from and cease such measures.” Those resolutions, notes the international digital rights group Access Now, are routinely ignored.

Access Now claims its data show that governments’ cutting or restricting access to the Internet under the guise of maintaining public safety, national security, and the like, has risen sharply from 75 incidents in 2016 to 188 in 2018.

Some disruptions are long lived. For example, the government of Cameroon blocked the Internet over 230 days in two Southwest and Northwest regions of the country between January 2017 and March 2018, with one incident lasting 93 days, in attempts to control violent anti-government protests. China restricted Internet access for 10 months in the western region of Xinjiang after ethnic violence between the Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese in 2009.

Of course, blocking access to the Internet is a blunt instrument. Actively censoring the Internet and social media can be just as effective, and has the added “benefit” of identifying those individuals or groups who might be seen as troublemakers. China, with its censorship factories and Great Firewall, is leading the way and showing other governments how to exert control over their populace if they so wish.

For instance, at the beginning of this year, Vietnam introduced a cybersecurity law that parallels many of China’s Internet and social media restrictions. The law makes it a criminal offense to criticize the government, and requires ISPs to provide the government user data on request. Not surprisingly, a study [PDF] released late last year by the democracy watchdog organization Freedom House reports that Internet freedom has declined for eight consecutive years.

As demonstrated in Zimbabwe, shutting down ISPs also can have unexpected side effects that go beyond inhibiting communications. It will be interesting to watch how IoT device manufacturers are going to address the increasing number of government cut-offs and restrictions of the Internet, not only in terms of IoT reliability of operation, but also in terms of giving governments even more weapons to control their populations. IoT security may be currently a big concern, but dealing with deliberate outages may turn out to be a more important one in the future.

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Metamaterials Could Solve One of 6G’s Big Problems

There’s plenty of bandwidth available if we use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces

12 min read
An illustration depicting cellphone users at street level in a city, with wireless signals reaching them via reflecting surfaces.

Ground level in a typical urban canyon, shielded by tall buildings, will be inaccessible to some 6G frequencies. Deft placement of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces [yellow] will enable the signals to pervade these areas.

Chris Philpot

For all the tumultuous revolution in wireless technology over the past several decades, there have been a couple of constants. One is the overcrowding of radio bands, and the other is the move to escape that congestion by exploiting higher and higher frequencies. And today, as engineers roll out 5G and plan for 6G wireless, they find themselves at a crossroads: After years of designing superefficient transmitters and receivers, and of compensating for the signal losses at the end points of a radio channel, they’re beginning to realize that they are approaching the practical limits of transmitter and receiver efficiency. From now on, to get high performance as we go to higher frequencies, we will need to engineer the wireless channel itself. But how can we possibly engineer and control a wireless environment, which is determined by a host of factors, many of them random and therefore unpredictable?

Perhaps the most promising solution, right now, is to use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces. These are planar structures typically ranging in size from about 100 square centimeters to about 5 square meters or more, depending on the frequency and other factors. These surfaces use advanced substances called metamaterials to reflect and refract electromagnetic waves. Thin two-dimensional metamaterials, known as metasurfaces, can be designed to sense the local electromagnetic environment and tune the wave’s key properties, such as its amplitude, phase, and polarization, as the wave is reflected or refracted by the surface. So as the waves fall on such a surface, it can alter the incident waves’ direction so as to strengthen the channel. In fact, these metasurfaces can be programmed to make these changes dynamically, reconfiguring the signal in real time in response to changes in the wireless channel. Think of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces as the next evolution of the repeater concept.

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