By Kim Harrisberg
DURBAN, Aug 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the past year, internet shutdowns have left Africans unable to pay bills, send money to family and access their finances through popular mobile money apps.
As Zambians prepare to go to the polls on Thursday, rights groups are keeping a close eye on the possibility of another internet shutdown following reports of the suspected slowing down of internet speeds this past week.
The Zambian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Services denied tampering with internet access but warned in a statement that it would not hesitate to take legal action if the internet is used to push harmful misinformation.
But citizens and activists fighting for their livelihoods and their voices to be heard, are pushing back: going to courts, signing petitions and downloading Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to bypass blackouts.
Here’s a round-up of the situation facing several countries in recent months:
Internet research firm Top10VPN documented a 151 percent increase in VPN use this week as Zambians attempt to bypass possible restrictions.
"There is a lot of suspicion on the ground because of the recently enacted Cyber Crimes Act that some legal experts believe would allow government to shut down the internet," said Nicole Beardsworth, a politics lecturer at the University of the Witswatersrand in South Africa.
Local media outlets reported a two-day shutdown during the 2016 elections.
The #KeepItOn coalition — a group of over 240 organizations working to end internet shutdowns globally - issued a petition to the Zambian government last week calling for internet access to remain uninterrupted.
In late June, eSwatini imposed an internet blackout citing "national security" reasons. The tiny landlocked nation in Southern Africa has been rocked by protests against King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch, which have turned violent in recent months.
These internet shutdowns have cost the country US$15.8 million to date, according to Top10VPN.
Unable to earn, check in on his family and communicate with his clients, consultant and local human rights activist Melusi Simelane decided to sue the government over the shutdown.
Although the case was dropped in July when the shutdown was lifted, Simelane said activists were keeping a close eye on the situation and would not hesitate to seek legal recourse in the future to set a precedent that may stop future shutdowns.
"Companies must be empowered in the future when given an order by governments to shut down the internet to say, look, we cannot do that because courts have pronounced this an infringement," Simelane said.
In early June, nearly 200 Nigerians filed a lawsuit together with local rights group the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) to lift a government ban on the use of Twitter.
The ban was announced two days after the social media giant removed a post from President Muhammadu Buhari that threatened to punish regional secessionists, which Twitter said violated its rules. Following the suspension, the country’s attorney general ordered those who continued to use Twitter to be prosecuted.
The government said the ban was unrelated to the removal of Buhari’s post but instead aimed at preventing the spread of violence in the country.
So far, internet disruptions have cost Nigeria US$366.9 million, making it the third most economically-impacted nation from shutdowns to date after India and Myanmar, according to Top10VPN.
"The (suspension) negatively impacted millions of Nigerians who carry on their daily businesses and operational activities on Twitter," said Kolawole Oluwadare of SERAP.
After hearing the case, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) said it was restraining the Nigerian government from prosecuting Twitter users.
Uganda ordered an internet shutdown on the eve of the presidential election in January this year, allegedly to avoid outside interference in the election.
The ban was lifted 100 hours later, a move that rights groups said crippled Ugandan's livelihoods, particularly those in the informal sector who are dependent on mobile money apps. To date, shutdowns have cost the country nearly US$51.5 million.
Two months later, the East African Law Society (EALS) that brings together more than 18,000 lawyers from seven East African countries, sued the government over the blackout. EALS said the blackout caused significant financial loss and hardship to ordinary Ugandans, affecting online food suppliers and internet-based transport services among others.
The outcome of this case has not yet been made public and the EALS was not immediately available for comment.
As Ethiopia’s war in its northern Tigray region intensifies, rights groups are calling for the internet to remain open to monitor human rights abuses and keep the economy alive.
In May, as national elections were postponed for a second time, social media was blocked for eight hours.
Since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali's administration came to power in April 2018, digital rights group Access Now has recorded 13 shutdowns, sometimes lasting for weeks at a time. In an open letter to the government, it said internet and social media platforms were critical in ensuring that all Ethiopians could take part in democratic processes and hold authorities to account.
As in other countries, demand for VPN services in Ethiopia has surged, allowing some internet users to bypass certain restrictions.
VPN use spiked by 340% in the country compared to the previous five days, according to Top10VPN.
(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)