Censored continent: Understanding the use of tools during Internet censorship in Africa: Cameroon, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe as case studies

Censored continent: Understanding the use of tools during Internet censorship in Africa: Cameroon, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe as case studies
Babatunde Okunoye

This report summarizes 33 interviews with people in Cameroon, Nigeria, Uganda, and Zimbabwe on the use of circumvention tools during times of Internet censorship. The interviewees are students, activists, businesspeople, and teachers, recruited through contacts with the Internet freedom community in the countries in question.

Africa is second only to Asia in its number of Internet disruptions. Internet censorship in Africa generally has legal justification and is intended to prevent challenges to state power. The methods used to control access to information in the four countries of this study are similar, though they vary in details. Cameroon has experienced blocking of web sites, social media, and messaging apps, as well as Internet shutdowns—including a 93-day shutdown in English-speaking areas of the country in 2017. In Nigeria, censorship most commonly manifests not as network blocks or shutdowns, but as online surveillance and arrests of journalists. Uganda has seen short-term social media blocks during e.g. elections, as well as surveillance and arrests of bloggers. Since 2018, 50 social media web sites can only be accessed in Uganda by paying a daily social media tax. In Zimbabwe, there are blocks of social media and messaging apps, and surveillance and arrests of bloggers.

The interviews sought to find out what circumvention tools are used, how people get them, what causes people to use one tool over another, and what usability challenges exist. All interviewees had at least one circumvention tool installed (including encrypted messengers), and half had two or more. Most used the tools on a mobile computer, and some on desktop. As reasons for preferring certain circumvention tools, people mentioned community recommendations, low cost and data usage, high speed, ease of use, and safety. Recommendations came from colleagues, friends, neighbors, and civil society groups; local and diaspora groups were important in spreading awareness of circumvention tools and giving advance warning of Internet disruptions, over SMS or WhatsApp, for example. When direct downloads of tools were blocked, people shared them locally using USB, Bluetooth, or Xender. In some cases, people switched from more popular tools (Facebook, WhatsApp) to less popular tools (Telegram, Signal, Jitsi, Firechat) that the government was seemingly unaware of. In Cameroon during shutdowns, some people migrated to another part of the country where the Internet was not shut down. Usability problems reported by interviewees were slow speed, VPN-imposed data caps, intrusive in-VPN advertising, and problems logging in to services that use an IP address as a pseudo-authenticator (Facebook, Gmail, cPanel). People described the experience of switching from one VPN to another as they hit data limits. In Uganda, some people opted to pay the social media tax because it is less hassle than using a VPN.

Thanks to Babatunde Okunoye for commenting on a draft of this summary.

How is the social media tax implemented? Is it SNI-based? I wonder what happens with ECH, or if you use Intra.

I don’t know the details but according to the OONI post it varies by ISP. On MTN, the use of an HTTP proxy is obligatory. The table of failure reasons is mostly HTTP/HTTPS (which I suppose means SNI), with a few TCP/IP and no DNS.