A report by the Human Rights organisation Amnesty International has highlighted the extent to which the Government of Ethiopia has been using online censorship to try and quell protests in the country.
The report has been compiled by Amnesty with the assistance of the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and shows evidence of how the Ethiopian government has, as they have described it, “systematically and illegally blocked access to social media and news websites”.
On the 6th and 7th August, protests in the Ethiopian province of Oromia were brutally put down by the country’s security forces with at least 100 people being killed.
These were the latest in a long line of protests by the ethnic Oromos people, who are angry at plans by the Ethiopian Government to expand the administrative control of the capital Addis Ababa into Oromia region; the so-called “Addis Ababa Masterplan”.
This plan is expected to see land seizures, something which is understandably fiercely opposed by the local population.
Since they began in November 2015, the protests have spread and have often been met with excessive force by the Government. But as well as this suppression of people’s right to protest, there is now also mounting evidence of the Government blocking internet communication services and news outlets in an effort to stop the protests.
Illegal blocking of websites
Between June and October 2016, the period during which this study was undertaken, they found evidence that WhatsApp was being blocked in Ethiopia as well as at least 16 news outlets.
Furthermore, evidence gathered from contacts within the country found that there was often slow internet connections, and accessing other social media sites was, at times, impossible.
On the 6th and 7th August, when the protests in question took place, the researchers found that internet access on mobile devices was completely blocked in a number of regions including Amhara, Addis Ababa, and Oromia.
These findings have been supported by evidence from the Google Transparency Report for July – November 2016, which revealed that Google also saw a significant drop in the amount of internet traffic in Ethiopia on these two days.
Deep Packet Inspection
As well as these censorship efforts, the Amnesty report also turned up evidence of the Ethiopian regime making use of Deep Packet Inspection.
Deep Packet Inspection is a technology which can be bought and whilst it does have a number of legitimate uses, it is most commonly used by Governments to monitor and filter online traffic.
According to this report, The Ethiopian regime is using Deep Packet Inspection to filter access to websites. It seems likely that this is the tool they are using to block access to WhatsApp and the various news sites they have taken exception to.
And it is not just those connected with the protests which are coming under fire. According to Amnesty, the technology is being used to block access to content such as freedom of expression advocates and LGBT content, as well as political opposition.
Use of VPNs
The picture painted by this report is becoming a worryingly familiar one: a regime using internet censorship to suppress the rights of its people and assert its own power.
Little wonder then that more and more people are reported to be using tools like VPNs in Ethiopia. According to Amnesty, the data gathered for this report shows that “more and more people were trying to access censorship circumvention tools… which indicated that the internet was inaccessible through the normal routes.”
There can be little doubt that while the Government’s current policies continue, the pattern of increased VPN usage will too, as Ethiopians attempt to assert their right to free expression and a free and open internet.