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 Zimbabwe Ecocash 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.
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.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.