Facebook has criticized the long-standing internet and social media blackouts imposed in Tanzania, Uganda, Chad and Ethiopia between January 2020 and February 2021. The company said the shutdowns were counterproductive and violated citizens human rights in this digital age.
British tech research firm Comparitech released the 2020 internet disruption report which showed that internet and social media shutdowns in Africa happen during the election period or in cases of civil unrest.
The report said that the shutdowns in Tanzania and Uganda were ordered by the incumbent governments in a bid to silence the opposition, giving them the upper hand in the election process against the people’s will.
Facebook East Africa Spokesperson Janet Kemboi said the internet blackouts in Africa had prevented users access to social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp curtailing freedom of speech and expression which is a democratic right.
“We strongly oppose shutdowns, throttling, and other disruptions of the internet. We are deeply concerned by the trend towards this approach in some African countries. Even temporary disruptions of internet services have tremendous, negative human rights, economic and social consequences,” Ms Kemboi told the Nation.
Facebook said that governments could benefit from connectivity and internet-based apps in times of crisis.
“Similarly, the internet— social media and messaging services in particular—helps people know whether their families and friends are safe in the aftermath of natural disasters and other crises. This reduces panic,” the company said in a statement.
Ms. Kemboi said the shutdowns also affected the countries’ digital economies, especially at an age where start-ups connecting global markets were thriving.
“These shutdowns undermine economic activity and growth of SMEs. They bring the startup ecosystem to a standstill,” she remarked.
An ICT lecturer at MultiMedia University of Kenya, John Walubengo said that internet interruptions had more repercussions than the obvious.
“The biggest impact actually goes beyond the immediate economic impact. There is the low score on future competitiveness of that country in terms of investor confidence. Investing in any sector in that country will be a weak investment option since operations can be switched off at the will of one individual,” he says.
He believes that even in cases of national security, governments need a more systematic process to effect the shutdowns.
“Governments should ensure the nature of the shutdown is commensurate to the threat. You cannot shutdown internet in the whole of Kenya, when maybe riots are only happening in Kibera or Mathare. You only need localized shutdowns and even then for a predictable period of time,” Mr Walubengo who is also a data protection officer at Ajua Africa said.
The United Nations believes that access to the internet in this digital age contributes to the broader range of human rights including freedom of expression, freedom of information, the right to assemble and association, the right to health care and standard quality of life through economic activity.
Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that governments are required to adhere to their international human rights commitments. Nations are only required to carry out legal, necessary, and proportional restrictive measures on freedom of expression in exceptional cases legal.