Queries over shaky internet connectivity on protests day

Kenya’s leading network providers, Safaricom and Airtel, said the internet outage was caused by physical damage to their undersea cables.  

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Kenya has joined a long list of African countries that have restricted internet use in response to dissent or public unrest, despite the government’s talk of building the digital economy to empower the youth.

On Tuesday, Kenyans experienced a major internet disruption, with global cybersecurity and network monitoring firm NetBlocks reporting that connectivity had sharply fallen to about 42 percent, affecting neighbouring Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda as well.

While the technology sector regulator is yet to admit any interference with internet connectivity, the explanations given by the local network providers have not been corroborated, raising more questions than answers.

Kenya’s leading network providers, Safaricom and Airtel, said the internet outage was caused by physical damage to their undersea cables, but there has been no confirmation from SeaCom, which deploys the cables, nor NetBlocks.

No subsea cable damage

On Wednesday, NetBlocks said there was “no physical subsea cable damage yet identified,” contrary to what the local telcos told their customers moments after the outage, pointing to a potential censorship.

While this is the first time there is a potential State-imposed internet restriction in Kenya, available data shows that internet censorship is becoming an increasingly widespread tool used by African governments to deal with dissent.

The Internet Shutdown Tracker by global network monitor Surfshark shows Kenya is experiencing its first “government-imposed” internet restriction, but joins a long list of African countries that have recently taken this route in moments of public uproar.

The data shows that, since 2015, Africa has recorded 119 cases of internet censorship across 26 countries, meaning nearly half of governments on the continent have recently resorted to disrupting internet access, mostly to quell political turmoil.

Before Kenya, the most recent incidence of such censorship was in Senegal in February this year when members of the public took to the streets to protest the President’s decision to postpone the much-anticipated elections.

Second highest

In the Eastern Africa region, other countries that have recently restricted internet are Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Others across the continent are Malawi, Zimbabwe, Congo, Eswatini, Gabon, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Benin, Togo, among others.

Across the world, Africa has the second highest number of internet censorship cases, only second to Asia, which has had 620 cases of disruptions over the last 10 years, most of which were reported in India and Pakistan as well as in the Middle East.

Following the internet outage, thousands of Kenyans resorted to using virtual private networks (VPNs), which blocks the internet from determining one’s location, allowing them to access the web and social media platforms freely.

Proton VPN, which offers VPN connection services, reported a 12-fold surge in sign-ups from Kenya on Tuesday, while Google reported a 10-times surge in searches for the word “VPN.”

Data from Netblocks shows that such internet disruptions are normally costly to economies, causing billions worth of losses in countries’ national production, as the internet has become an integral part of production across the globe.

For instance, in Kenya, an hour of total internet shutdown costs the country an estimated $13.5 million (about Sh1.7 billion) in gross domestic product gains.