Selectively blacking out the internet to curtail political unrest and organizing is the new normal
Parts of Cameroon are now entering their tenth day without internet access due to a government-ordered blackout that began the night of January 17-18, part of a wider crackdown in the country’s Northwest and Southwest provinces, impacting about 5 million people.
Unlike most of Francophone Cameroon, these provinces are predominantly Anglophone, a point that’s become a bone of contention as the central government tries to quash talk of federalism, which it regards as illegal separatist agitation, and curtail protests and strike actions by local residents as part of a larger crackdown that has seen mass arrests and civilian casualties since last year.
Activists have dubbed the latest action as “digital apartheid,” as both officials and service providers are staying fairly quiet about the specifics of the blackout. Since internet penetration is so limited in the country, just 11 percent, the focus of the effort is on mobile users: 80% of the population has a cellphone. As such, the government is also sending out mass alerts to people’s phones that still have internet access warning them not to spread disinformation or face fines and jail time:
You incur 6 months to 2 years imprisonment, and 5 to 10 million fine if you spread on the social media, information that you can’t prove.
— MINPOSTEL (@minpostel2035) January 22, 2017
These disruptions have become increasingly common worldwide, as Geektime reported on The Gambia in December, when the now-exiled president, Yahya Jammeh, shut down the internet ahead of an election he lost and, facing a UN-backed military intervention, eventually accepted the results of.
According to The Wire, governments shut down internet access – in part or in full – at least 50 times in 2016, and the tactic will surely gain in popularity this year, too.
In a letter to the Minister of Post and Telecommunication, the director of the state telecommunications company, CAMTEL, wrote that teams were sent to the port cities of Douala, Kribi and Limbé on the night of January 17-18 to enforce the policy. These are the locations housing access points for Cameroon’s SAT-3 marine cable, so this mobilization was to ensure that Cameroon’s other mobile and internet providers – namely Vodafone-Afrimax, MTN Cameroon, Creolink, Orange Cameroon, and Viettel-Nexttel – would adhere to the government directive, since GAMTEL owns all of Cameroon’s fiber-optic infrastructure and the other telcos just lease it.
— Dyn Research (@DynResearch) January 17, 2017
Over the next few hours, the government temporarily cut all internet traffic nationwide, but then restored it, except for the two restive Anglophone provinces. Julie Owono of Internet Without Borders told Quartz that rather than enforce a nationwide cutoff once the point was made to the telcos, the government employed third party software it had purchased to carry out selective provincial blackouts.
MTN, the largest mobile operator in Cameroon with 57% market share, was one of the companies forced to suspend service, and was also reportedly asked to provide additional information on its customers by the Cameroonian government, but did not.
Vodafone-Afrimax, in contrast, told Internet Without Borders it did not receive any such demands from the government.
By blocking people from email, social media, and banking services the government hopes to make apparent the price for protests. “Some banks, micro-finance houses, ENEO, the lone power utility company, cybercafés, even scammers and other private businesses are feeling the crunch of the Internet famine,” reported the Cameroon Postline, forcing people to travel to neighboring provinces for access.