What if my government doesn’t care about the economic cost of #InternetShutdowns?

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After close to three months without Internet access, last week the Anglophone regions of Cameroon finally saw the lifting of an Internet ban that was imposed in January in response to anti-government protests in that country. It is estimated that Cameroon realised close to US $5 million in economic loses attributable to the shutdown. Cameroon is just the latest victim of what’s becoming a real scourge particularly on the African continent. We have learnt that in 2016 alone, there were at least 56 documented Internet shutdowns, and the number keeps growing.

That any government can get away with such a move amidst campaigns to #KeepItOn and #BringBackOurInternet is an indicator of how far we still have to go in terms of locating effective methodologies for stopping intentional state-sanctioned internet disruptions.

There have been various campaigns calling on governments to respect freedom of expression and leave the Internet alone. The UN officially condemned the practice of Internet shutdowns and passed a resolution to that effect. The Freedom Online Coalition (made up of 30 governments) also issued a joint statement condemning state sponsored network disruptions. Recently, AFRINIC announced a punitive policy proposal to penalise governments and their aligned entities for implementing shutdowns, through refusing them new IP addresses. There are a number of problems with this latest proposition, least of which is the fact that ultimately innocent citizens may end up paying the price.

The reality is, there have so far been no measures that have successfully prevented errant governments from executing mass web blockades.

In the dialogues against Internet shutdowns, what I often hear being put forth as the main argument to use against errant governments is the issue of the economic costs of shutdowns. The Brookings Institution estimates that Internet shutdowns in seven surveyed African countries in 2016 alone resulted in losses of up to $320 million.

The only problem is, clearly many governments do not care about that. Stances taken by governments like that of Cameroon and a few others show that economic loss is not a sufficient deterrent. A lot of government officials do not understand the Internet, including those that regulate it. My government in particular has never been deterred by the thought of making decisions that are potentially economically disastrous, and has itself historically introduced suicidal policies that have sabotaged or nearly sunk the economy before.

In case you don’t know a lot about Zimbabwe, here is a brief chronicle of a few past events that will make the cost associated with Internet shutdowns pale in comparison:

  • 1997 – the Zimbabwe government buckled under pressure and made un-budgeted but hefty payouts as gratuities to about 50 000 war veterans (each individual paid about the equivalent of US $4000). These payouts had grave economic consequences from which the country never fully recovered, and resulted in what became known as Black Friday, when our currency lost 72% of its value in a single day.

  • Year 2000 – the Zimbabwe government executed a chaotic land reform program that saw to a lot of productive farm land being seized from white farmers for the purpose of ‘re-settling’ landless black Zimbabweans. A lot of the resettled ‘new’ farmers knew squat about farming at that scale. Many of them abandoned staples that were being grown on a number of the farms The land reform program led to a drastic deterioration of the country’s economy and is widely believed to have precipitated the country’s economic collapse between 2000 – 2009.

  • 2008 – The Zimbabwe government enacted the Indigenisation Empowerment Act that among other things compelled most ‘foreign owned’ companies, in particular ones with a share capital above US $500 000, to cede 51% of their shares to ‘indigenous’ Zimbabweans. This move not only chased away potential investors; it crippled a number of productive companies because of the effects on business confidence.

  • 2008 – 2009: we were a nation of billionaires. Seriously, I was a billionaire before I hit 30. Inflation had risen to about 500 billion percent. I remember the then Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa trying very hard to stop himself from laughing as he mentioned quintillion level amounts while presenting the national budget. Hyperinflation and wanton printing of money characterised this period for us and as a result, prices of goods changed 10 times in a day and we starved a little. There were literally empty shelves in the supermarkets.

I could go on, but you get the point.

So. Basically the economic argument wont cut it.

What else is there? This is a genuine concern because Zimbabwe goes to the polls in 2018. The election fever is already starting to be felt. Our government has been watching and learning as the likes of Museveni and Biya among others have gotten away with shutting down the Internet with great impunity. We can realistically expect that this might happen around Zimbabwe’s 2018 plebiscite. After all, the government did experiment with a partial shutdown around the July 2016 nationwide stay-away…

At RightsCon this year, I seem to recall a brief conversation that was had about finding useful ‘alternatives’ other than internet shutdowns, that could be suggested to governments keen to address the specific challenges that have previously necessitated intentional network disruptions (e.g preventing examination cheating, or maintaining the peace in the face of public protests). Perhaps we are better off concentrating our energies on that versus the usual ‘bland statements that have shown to have little or no effect’ as described by AFRINIC in justifying their denial of IP addresses proposal.