By Randev Jayasina
In a recent run of African presidential elections, several states have periodically shut down or blocked internet and social media platforms in order to maintain security.
Although governments have claimed this is to ensure the public’s safety, human and digital rights activists claim that such actions are in direct violation of digital freedom of speech and a blatant form of censorship.
How do governments achieve this?
In the past few years a growing number of countries have been blocking access to popular social media platforms and the internet, according to a recent study by Access Now – an independent monitoring group.
Governments accomplish this by approaching Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and requesting that they limit access to their subscribers.
This shutdown of the web can range from a restriction on popular social media platforms to even stricter, more extreme measures, where they block all access to the internet.
According to Access Now, this is part of a global trend, where more and more countries are restricting internet access, with up to 213 shutdowns in 2019 globally, compared to 106 in 2017.
Why aren’t service providers saying no?
Many ISPs are private companies but licensed by the governments, therefore if they deny the request of the state they may risk being slapped with fines and a loss of their contracts.
However, operators may have the right to appeal to the courts, but they rarely do.
How do you escape the block?
Unless access to the internet has been completely shut down the easiest way to still access social media platforms is by installing a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
A VPN encrypts data paths making it difficult for service providers to block access to restricted sites by relaying your IP signal with other locations.
However, governments can also block VPNs, but are less likely to do so as it may inconvenience foreign diplomats and large companies.
Governments, however, maintain the stance that the reason they take these measures during election time is to halt the spread of ‘fake news’ on platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.
But some analysts and opposition figures consider this as an excuse in order to suppress groups critical of the government, which are often organised on the aforementioned platforms.