Earlier this week, we reported on the significant increase in internet shutdowns around the world. That data showed that Africa was one region where shutdowns were particularly prevalent, so it is not a huge surprise that this week has seen another country go down a similar route.
The majority of the African shutdowns were linked to either elections or political protests, so with a Presidential election taking place in Togo last weekend, all eyes were on the small francophone West African country. It didn’t disappoint.
Togo censors social media
One organisation that was keeping a particularly close eye on Togo last weekend was OONI, the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI).
Their OONI Explorer tool allows users all over the world to report internet censorship, disruptions, and shutdowns in real-time and shares data that allows the OONI team to assess the extent of the problem and sometimes even identify how the shutdown is being implemented.
In Togo, the political motivations for the censorship were obvious. In recent years, there has been a wave of popular protests against the country’s ruling Gnassingbe family, who have controlled the country for 53 years.
Ahead of this election, staff from the independent National Democratic Institute (NDI) were expelled from Togo and all independent election monitoring was blocked.
It will surprise no-one that incumbent President Faure Gnassingbe won the election, although the chances of him having done so fairly are minimal at best.
On February 22nd, it was clear that blocking access to crucial and popular internet messaging was part of Gnassingbe’s plan to restrict opposition activities and steal the election. Users reported that WhatsApp, Telegram, and Facebook Messenger were blocked nationwide.
Details of the blocks
One interesting aspect of this particular bout of censorship that OONI identified was that not every telecoms network in Togo complied with the block.
While two of the country’s major mobile networks, Togo Telecom and Atlantique Telecom, blocked access to all three services, a third Canalbox, did not. All three services remained accessible throughout the weekend on Canalbox.
It is worth noting at this stage that because OONI has relatively few Explorer users on the ground in Togo, it is only able to say that these three services were “likely blocked”. However anecdotal evidence and numerous postings on Twitter and other social media platforms appear to confirm their suspicions.
OONI’s tests suggest that WhatsApp was being blocked using a technique known as IP-based blocking. In other words, the two networks that were compliant with the government’s censorship blocked access to the IP Addresses used by WhatsApp to deliver their service.
As these IP Addresses relate to Amazon Web Services, it is likely that other sites using those IP Address would have been blocked too.
This type of block can easily be got around by using a VPN and it appears that some in the country did precisely that, although VPN use in Togo is not thought to be especially high.
The Telegram HTTPS service also appears to have been blocked in a similar way, meaning that Telegram was inaccessible on desktop devices. However, OONI data suggests that Telegram mobile apps continued to work throughout the election. Facebook Messenger is thought to have been unavailable on both mobile and desktop devices.
Normal service now resumed
OONI has confirmed that subsequent tests that took place earlier this week have confirmed that access to all three messaging services has now been restored on both the Togo Telecom and Atlantique Telecom networks.
This means it is pretty obvious that these blocks were linked to the Presidential election and therefore almost certainly put in place at the behest of the ruling party. Togo is, therefore, the latest country that we can add to the list of African nations that has shut down access to crucial online services as a means of quelling political dissent.
In this case, the current President’s highly dubious re-election appears to have been the main factor.
Lessons to be learned
What lessons can the people of Togo take from this incident? The first is that if they are going to choose a mobile network then Canalbox is clearly the one to go for. They failed to comply with this round of political censorship and are therefore clearly not in the pocket of the regime there.
But perhaps more important is the obvious benefit of using a VPN. The means used by the Togolese authorities to censor access to these sites is not particularly high-tech and all sites would have remained accessible to anyone using a VPN.
In the event of a repeat incident, all Togolese people would need to do is log into their VPN, connect to a server outside Togo, and then use WhatsApp, Telegram, and Facebook Messenger as usual.
It is highly advisable to use a premium VPN rather than a free one, as these can be extremely insecure and it could be easy for the Togolese authorities to find out what you are doing online.
If subscription costs are a little high, there is always the option of sharing a subscription with friends and family and choosing a VPN that allows multiple or even unlimited connections on a single account.
A VPN will also encrypt all of your online data and allow you to use the internet anonymously which could become extremely useful if President Gnassingbe continues to use any means to retain his grip on power.