New Year, new wave of internet blocks

We may be only three days into 2018, but already we have seen a hugely worrying spike in internet blocks and online censorship around the world, with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) the latest countries to take steps to restrict their citizen’s online freedoms.

We reported yesterday on the situation in Iran where a number of online services, including Telegram, have been blocked in the wake of sweeping protests against the authoritarian hard-line Islamic regime which is in power there.

DRC total internet shutdown

But the situation in Iran is not unique. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the government has instructed the country’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telecoms firms to block all internet access as well as SMS services.

According to Reuters, this is because of planned anti-government protests there after the country’s President, Joseph Kabila, failed to stand down from office at the end of 2017 as the DRC Constitution requires him to. Elections in DRC have been repeatedly delayed and are now not scheduled until December 2018.

The ‘national security’ excuse

As is so often the case when Governments impose restrictions on internet access, state security has been cited as the main reason. Emery Okundji, the DRC’s Telecommunications Minister and the person responsible for giving the order to suspend services claimed that the protests would be violent.

He told Reuters, “In response to violence that is being prepared … the government has the duty to take all measures to protect Congolese lives.”

As is the case in Iran, and on almost every other occasion when Government’s impose restrictions on internet access, the real reason is more about helping them to maintain a grip on power rather than anything that might be in the greater interest of the country and its people.

It is not the first time that there has been an internet shutdown in the DRC. In January 2015, internet and SMS services were again cut off during anti-Government protests and there have also been significant restrictions on DRC citizen’s ability to access various social media sites since then.

Sadly, the DRC is far from the only African regime which has used internet shutdown to tighten its grip on power. In 2017 alone, we have also reported on similar cases in Ethiopia, the Gambia, and Cameroon.

AFRINIC, the African Internet registry organisation has taken steps to try and stop such shutdowns occurring, but so far this seems to have had little effect. Internet shutdowns, censorship, and surveillance remain rife across Africa, with VPNs still offering many African people the most reliable way to access the internet without impediment.

UAE blocks Skype

The Middle East is another part of the world where internet blocking has become a common Government tactic. And in addition to the current situation in Iran, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has also got in on the party in 2018 already.

Their telecoms regulator has confirmed that, as of New Year’s Day, all voice over IP (VoIP) calling services are blocked. This will impact the accessibility of an number of well-known online services, of which Skype is the most prominent and popular in the UAE.

The time the motivation behind the blocks are not political but rather economic. The UAE has very strict regulations that govern all telecoms companies and conveniently, only the country’s two main telecoms companies (du and Etisalat) are able to meet them.

This is an issue that we have reported on before and while there have been intermittent blocks on various VOIP services in the past, this latest one appears to be definite and permanent.

Other countries in the region, including neighbouring Qatar, have imposed similar bans and once again protecting the markets of their state telecoms company appears to be the primary motivation.

Obviously, by using a VPN, people in the UAE are still able to access Skype and other VOIP services, but they should be aware that the UAE does also have laws against the use of VPNs would could leave users with large fines in they are caught.

But for those willing to take the risk, VPNs do still work in Qatar which means it is possible to circumvent the states online restrictions.

It has been a really worrying start to 2018 for online freedom around the world. We can only hope that the global situation does improve through the rest of the year. But early indications are far from encouraging.

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