The news coming out of Tanzania involving the alleged throttling of the internet, particularly social media sites, during and immediately after the October 28th election, is both disheartening and dismaying. According to reports, several people in Tanzania have been forced to resort to the use of Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, to keep themselves afloat.
The new and unprecedented internet throttling currently underway in Tanzania reveals some several astonishing facts. Among them is the fact that many people in the country never used or knew anything about VPNs. The word VPN has become the new catchphrase and a source of all kinds of memes in various social media platforms. It also speaks of the ability of Tanzanians to fight back and learn to adapt in a new environment. This is so despite the fact that Tanzania has passed regulations that prohibit use or distribution of tools that allow people to access prohibited content, such as VPNs.
But what are VPNs exactly? When you connect to the internet, you connect to your internet Service Provider (ISP). Nowadays, increasingly, this is done through a mobile phone. So the mobile phone provider is also the internet Service Provider, at least from the user’s perspective. The connection is established by your ISP giving you, the end user, a unique number. This number is called an IP (internet Protocol) address. This number establishes your internet connection. Without a VPN, everything you do could be seen by prying eyes. Thus, a VPN protects you by giving you a cover of anonymity under which you operate.
The safety vs. privacy debate
Now, this is a scary idea to governments that are used to control everything. Not without justification, I want to point this out clearly. If governments are tasked to secure the populace, then they must have a track on the nefarious types. But where does one draw the line? What is acceptable, and what is governmental overreach?
In a country where private citizens’ communications are eavesdropped on and made public, and the State demands an apology from these citizens whose privacy is violated, how does one have any modicum of comfort that the government needs access to private communication for the greater good? How should authorities be allowed to switch off the internet due to national security reasons? How does one get comfortable that a government is disciplined enough to distinguish between the real national security from purely selfish political interests?
The events of the 2020 election have exposed many weaknesses in our country’s commitment to upholding some basic constitutional rights. Take the infringement upon freedom of expression and right to privacy as expressed in Articles 15, 16 and 18 of Tanzania’s Constitution as examples. Following the organized internet throttling in Tanzania, these constitutional rights were blatantly abused, with neither justification nor explanation. Until the time of writing this, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA), which is responsible for all communications in Tanzania has not said a single word on the inconvenience that internet users are experiencing across the country.
Flipping the switch
This is not a mere philosophical musing. People — some being very non-political types — are losing their income thanks to these practices. It is now becoming increasingly common, especially in Africa, for governmental ombudsmen to simply flip the internet switch, turning it off completely. Back in April, 2020, I read about this injustice happening in Chad, for a year. A sorry story in a desert landlocked police state with a long history of coups, war and strife. I thought this surely wouldn’t happen in Tanzania. I was wrong.
According to data from global digital rights organisations, AccessNow and KeepItOn Coalition, the number of complete internet shutdowns, social media blocking and internet throttling went from sixteen in 2016, dropped to 12 in 2017, climbed to 20 in 2018 and upped the ante to a cool 25 in 2019. It has happened, to name but a few examples, in Ethiopia, Congo, Zimbabwe, Mali, Burundi, Guinea, Benin, Gabon, Eritrea, Liberia, Malawi and Mauritania. The excuse, often, is as all-encompassing, as it is vague. As banal as it is lazy. As unjustified as it is draconian. The whole exercise is as archaic as the Hammurabi code, and counterproductive as shooting oneself in the foot before running a marathon!
Africa is supposed to be embracing the internet. The internet is supposedly the great leveller. Tanzania as a country, removed taxes on computers for this reason. To keep up with the world. At a time when the government is hardly cultivating prospects for employment for new graduates, young people have a right to explore what opportunities the internet has to offer after overcoming so many barriers to employment. Now that they have found some internet gig they are good at, the powers that be want to take away that too? Give the young people access, let the best and the brightest strive online. If they fail, let the reason be their own lack of ability, not some artificial barrier to entry on the global marketplace of skills.
The Internet is Here To Stay
The internet is here, it is not going anywhere. It was born in an age of counterculture that anticipated not only massive censorship, but also genuine hardware and software failure anywhere. It was built with resiliency and redundancy. The core protocols running the internet have this baked in. When you send an email that goes through SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) your email is not going to fail on the first try simply because the receiving side’s server is offline, it will try several times. If the shortest path for internet traffic is not accessible, that does not mean traffic will stop, the next best path will be pursued.
It is thus incumbent upon our African leaders to realize that fighting this resilient tool called the internet is counterproductive and will only give their countries a bad name.
Katundu Kassim is a political and technology analyst based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. These are writers’ own opinion and they do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative.