DRC: how the government deprived its population of the internet
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In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the population still does not have access to the web and social networks, nearly twenty days after the general elections and the cutting of the mobile Internet. How is the government doing to subject operators to such a digital “shutdown”?
There are always error messages on Congolese smartphones … twenty days after the general elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, on December 30, the internet, mobile internet and SMS are still blocked in the whole country.
On December 24, 2018, the day after the initial date of the general elections, the Regulatory Authority of the Post and Telecommunications of Congo (ARPTC) contacted the four Congolese mobile operators that day. By mail, he asks them to restrict access to ” videos and images on social networks Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber, YouTube, Twitter “. A document that RFI was able to obtain.
In fact, only SMS have been cut on this date, says Blaise Ndola, Congolese blogger. The cut of the social networks, it, took place only December 31 – ” towards noon “, indicates Jean K. *, a professional network based in Kinshasa that we decided to anonymize – the day after the date effective elections, postponed by one week by the Electoral Commission (CENI). The government ” quickly realized that it was not playable, ” said Franck M. *, a French computer network researcher who also wished to remain anonymous.
On December 31, the Congolese Corporation of Posts and Telecommunications (SCPT), a public body that manages the only submarine fiber that connects the country to the Internet (called WACS for West Africa Cable System), cut off Internet access to certain providers. Access Point (FAI) to put pressure on them.
Confirmed: Internet shutdowns currently spreading across #DRCongo in aftermath of contested election with major outages in #Kinshasa and #Lubumbashi detected just now #RDCVote #KeepItOnhttps://netblocks.org/reports/evidence-of-internet-shutdowns-in-drc-amid-election-unrest-PW80YLAK …
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Nevertheless, Internet service providers have continued to cut the mobile Internet for the entire population. However, this concerns not less than 80% of the traffic in the country, according to cross studies of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the GSM Association (GSMA) and other research organizations.
Cuts protected by a legal framework
In the DRC, these injunctions of the government are completely legal, according to article 46 of the framework law of October 16th, 2002 on telecommunications in DRC:
” The State may, for reasons of public security or defense of the territory or in the interest of the public telecommunications service or for any other reason, prohibit in whole or in part, and during the time it determines , the use of telecommunications facilities “.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is not an isolated case. Almost all countries have such a law, ensures Nnenna Nwakanma, Web Foundation, an NGO of one of the founders of the web Tim Berners-Lee, who is campaigning for free access to the Internet worldwide. ” France has one and Australia just voted one in December, ” she says.
According to the Web Foundation, there were 109 total Internet cuts in a region or in a whole country in 2017, compared to only 75 in 2016. Figures for 2018 are not yet known.
Often made for reasons of national defense, these cuts are no less an attack ” to the flow of information and against the people, ” warns Franck M. *. ” In the Philippines, for the Miss Universe 2017 competition, there was a break in the internet ! How does a beauty contest become a safe emergency? Revolts Nnenna Nwakanma.
In the DRC, the mention ” for any other reason ” in the law leaves the field open to the government. Asked by the Web Foundation, the Congolese presidency justified its decision with ” rumors ” of people who would like to ” publish unofficial results “.
What exactly was cut on the 31st ?
Internet is a network of networks. The various Internet service providers and content providers – such as Google and Facebook – interconnect on what is known as an exchange point, a single physical point, housed in the same building. The only exchange point in operation in the DRC is in Kinshasa (KinIX). It is run by the Internet Service Providers Association of DRC (ISPA), a consortium financed by all operators in the country, including the four mobile operators – Airtel, Vodacom, Orange and Africell – to whom the letter of December 24 was addressed.
This consortium maintains a graph that shows the level of total bandwidth exchange in real time that goes through KinIX, whose last 7 days are visible on their site . RFI has obtained this same graph over the period from December 28, 2018 to January 17, 2019. It does not represent all the traffic of the country, but the one that passes through the exchange point KinIX – which nevertheless constitutes the very large majority of the ‘together.
In fact, the internet break is visible because the services of Google and Facebook are no longer accessible, hence the collapse of traffic, says Franck M. * To facilitate and accelerate the connection to these two platforms, dominant in the country and elsewhere, the two behemoths have installed servers in Kinshasa, closer to the Internet. Those of Google have been in the Congolese capital for three years and those of Facebook, only for six or eight months, according to our information.
If we see a sharp drop in traffic from December 31, it does not fall completely to zero afterwards. Why ? All mobile services (mobile data, SMS and voice over IP, VOIP – WhatsApp, Skype or Viber) have certainly been cut. But some services and businesses continue to have access to the internet via wired connections (DSL or fiber optic).
However, as we have seen above, they only concern a very small part of the Congolese population. ” According to the president’s speech last year, the coverage of fiber optics is 20% in the country , reports Blaise Ndola. I did my research and these are figures that I do not share. ”
How to get around the blockage ?
For Congolese, there are very few ways to get around this blockage. ” There are three possibilities ,” says Blaise Ndola, a Goma-based blogger on the country’s eastern border. We can go to Rwanda or use a Rwandan chip and approach the border. Otherwise, there are four to five hotels in Goma that have a connection. Finally, a week after the cut, state-owned companies saw their connections be restored. But employees only had access to e-mails and websites, not to social networks. To access them, they had to use VPNs [virtual private network, note]. “
In Kinshasa, it is Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo, on the other side of the Congo River, which remains the privileged gateway to internet access, like Rwanda for the city of Goma. The satellite is installed by some institutions (FAI, hotels, banks, etc.) to ensure a connection in case of incident, for example. It can not be cut at a distance, but it is very expensive and not at all accessible to ordinary citizens.
” There are some operators who arrange with some customers, who must protect them vis-à-vis the supporters of power, ” begins Jean K. *, who has alerted Franck M. * on the situation in his country. Information confirmed by Blaise Ndola: ” Orange has also allowed access to a few companies, but without social networks and with a very limited bandwidth, which does not allow downloading multimedia content. ”
NGO Objective 1 : put pressure on operators
According to NGO Netblocks, on the eighth day without internet, on January 7, the Congolese economy had lost more than 22 million euros because of the cut.
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8e jour sans #Internet en #RDC. Tout tourne au ralenti: économie, école et universités. une perte estimée à + de 25 millions de USD. Après le report de l’annonce des résultats par la @cenirdc #Shutdown se prolonge aussi. @EmeryOkundji @FrumenceBoroto @Internet_SF @netblocks
Thursday, January 10, we see on the graphs a peak connection, which falls very quickly. Africell, one of the four mobile operators, ” the most fragile because the only one that is not a subsidiary of a large group, ” has re-established the connection to its users for a few hours, before cutting it again. For Blaise Ndola, this is an article from the Politico.cd website announcing the government’s green light that has misled the ISP. Other rumors of return have circulated here and there, but they seem to have no foundation.
Why are operators, who suffer economically from this digital shutdown, comply with the orders of the authorities? ” Each operator has signed a business license with the government, in which the first undertakes to obey , develops Nnenna Nwakanma. If he does not obey, he can be fined or even withdrawn. Generally, she adds, the government first calls the operator, who asks for a written order.
“The more internet access providers there are in a country, the harder it is to cut it, ” says the activist. Ethiopia, for example, has only one operator, Ethio Telecom, owned by the state. In this type of case, the state depends entirely on the services of the sole ISP, so it is not in his interest to withdraw his license. It can happen that the state threatens the leaders of the operator. In Somalia, there was even kidnapping after a refusal to obey an operator.
According to our sources, three meetings took place between the operators and the Ministry of Communication and Media of the DRC, the first on January 6 and the third on the 15th. The ISPs asked during these interviews, the return of the Internet. Without success, for the moment.
” In France, an operator manages to make a showdown with the government, why would it not succeed with countries like the DRC? Wonders Jean-Marc Bourguignon, of Nothing2Hide, an NGO fighting for the protection of information. Its goal, like that of the NGO Access Now, is to put pressure on ISPs. ” We will not attack local operators, says Jean-Marc Bourguignon. They have family, work … The goal is to challenge the major operators (Orange World, Vodafone …) to tell them : ” Via subsidiaries, your brand goes hand in hand with authoritarian regimes.” ”
Tiens @Orange__RDC prépare l’année 2019 de façon spécial avec ses abonnés “CITOYENS” en #RDC. Comment un opérateur tel que @orange peut céder aussi facilement aux demandes d’un gouvernement (en pleine élection HASARD ??) #RDCElections
#RDCvote la connexion internet coupée depuis quelques heures, difficile d’avoir accès. À l’Est #Goma, #Bukavu le gens se connecte via les réseaux #MTN ou #Tigo Rwanda. #elections2018
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In the country, some opposition movements are doing similar lobbying work on ISPs, such as Lucha in Goma, for example.
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Pendant ce temps, à #Goma, nous avons manifesté pacifiquement devant le siège provincial de la compagnie @airtelrdc – symbolisant toutes les autres compagnies – pour exiger le rétablissement de la connexion internet et des SMS, coupés depuis maintenant 16 jours. #RDC #KeepItOn
Many Congolese bloggers also use OONI Probe , an application developed by the Tor Project, a network of web activists, to detect censorship **.
Contrary to what happened in other countries, as in Egypt during the Arab Spring, the cut of the beginning of this year in the Democratic Republic of Congo does not require to resort to extremely expensive services of companies Foreign private. Internet as such in the DRC is not filterable. The only way to block it is to cut it off for citizens. What the government did.
RFI tried to contact the Congolese government as well as the management of Orange DRC to obtain their reaction, without success.
* The names have been changed
At the international level, there are also other network monitoring tools: the best known is undoubtedly that of Netblocks , widely relayed but not explicit on its methodology. There is also Internet Intelligence , from the American company Oracle, or Internet Outage Detection and Analysis (IODA, for Detection and Analysis of Internet Disconnections ), the Center for Applied Analysis on Data of the Internet. Internet (CAIDA).
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