The seventh edition of Freedom on the Net, undertaken by Freedom House, has made riveting expose on the unwholesome practices of government against over-the-top applications and OTT apps users. In these thematic sub-themes, Clifford Agugoesi writes that the digital communities in Africa have reasons to fret
REVELATIONS in this year’s Freedom on the Net will upset buffs of over-the-top (OTT) applications. “Internet freedom around the world declined in 2016 for the sixth consecutive year and social media users face unprecedented penalties, as authorities in 38 countries made arrests based on social media posts over the past year. Globally, 27 per cent of all Internet users live in countries where people have been arrested for publishing, sharing, or merely “liking” content on Facebook,” says the report.
According to the report, two-thirds of all internet users – 67 per cent – live in countries where criticism of the government, military, or ruling family are subject to censorship and governments are increasingly going after messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, which can spread information quickly and securely.
Social media users face unprecedented penalties
Users in some countries were put behind bars for simply “liking” offending material on Facebook, or for not denouncing critical messages sent to them by others. The number of countries where such arrests occur has increased by over 50 per cent since 2013.
Governments censor more diverse content
Content and websites dealing with LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) issues were also increasingly blocked or taken down on moral grounds. Censorship of images—as opposed to the written word—has intensified.
Security measures threaten free speech and privacy
In an effort to boost their national security and law enforcement powers, a number of governments have passed new laws that limit privacy and authorize broad surveillance. This trend was present in both democratic and nondemocratic countries, and often led to political debates about the extent to which governments should have backdoor access to encrypted communications
Online activism reaches new heights
The Internet remained a key tool in the fight for better governance, human rights, and transparency. In over two-thirds of the countries in this study, Internet-based activism has led to some sort of tangible outcome, from the defeat of a restrictive legislative proposal to the exposure of corruption through citizen journalism. Of the 65 countries assessed, 34 have been on a negative trajectory since June 2015. Africa houses two countries with the steepest declines namely Uganda and Libya. In Uganda, the government made a concerted effort to blocking social media platforms and communication services such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp for several days.
14 countries registered overall improvements
Users in Zambia faced fewer restrictions on online content compared with the previous few years, when at least two critical news outlets were blocked. South Africa registered an improvement due to the success of online activists in using the Internet to promote societal change and diversifying online content, rather than any positive government actions.
Social Media and Communication Tools Under Assault
In 2015, social media platforms, communication apps, and their users faced greater threats than ever before in an apparent backlash against growing citizen engagement, particularly during politically sensitive times. Of the 65 countries assessed, governments in 24 impeded access to social media and communication tools, up from 15 the previous year. Governments in 15 countries temporarily shut down access to the entire Internet or mobile phone networks, sometimes solely to prevent users from disseminating information through social media.
WhatsApp was blocked more than any other tool, while Facebook users were arrested for posting political, social, or religious content in 27 countries.
New restrictions on messaging apps and Internet-based calls
The most routinely targeted tools this year were instant messaging and calling platforms, with restrictions often imposed during times of protests or due to national security concerns. Governments singled out these apps for blocking due to two important features: encryption, which protects the content of users’ communications from interception, and text or audiovisual calling functions, which have eroded the business model and profit margins of traditional telecommunications companies.
Freedom House frowned at these new restrictions saying: “Whatever the justification, restrictions on social media and internet-based communication tools threaten to infringe on users’ fundamental right to access the Internet. In a landmark resolution passed in July 2016, the UN Human Rights Council condemned state-sponsored disruptions to Internet access and the free flow of information online.”
App blocking aimed at protests, expressions of dissent
Apps were restricted to prevent or quell antigovernment protests, as they have become indispensable for sharing information on demonstrations and organizing participants in real time. In Ethiopia, ongoing protests that began in November 2015 in response to the government’s marginalization of the Oromo people have been met with periodic blocks on services including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Twitter.
In Uganda, officials directed Internet service providers to block WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter for several days during the presidential election period in February 2016 and again in the run-up to the reelected incumbent’s inauguration in May.
Market threats to national telecoms lead to backlash
In 2015, restrictions to protect market interests escalated most prominently in the Middle East and North Africa. Morocco’s telecommunications regulator issued a directive in January 2016 that suspended all Internet calling services over mobile networks, citing previously unenforced licensing requirements under the 2004 telecommunications law. The order seemed heavily influenced by the UAE’s Etisalat, which purchased a majority stake in Maroc Telecom, the country’s largest operator, in 2014. In Egypt, where long-distance VoIP calls on Skype have been blocked since 2010, voice calling features on WhatsApp and Viber have reportedly been inaccessible since October 2015.
Pressure to regulate mobile communication services in the past year threatened to impede access to such platforms in other regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, where mobile Internet use has been growing rapidly. In Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, private telecommunications companies lobbied governments to regulate Internet-based messaging and voice calling platforms such as Skype and WhatsApp, citing concerns over their profits. Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s single telecommunications provider, state-owned EthioTelecom, announced plans in April 2016 to introduce a new pricing scheme for mobile users of popular communication applications. Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), however, said it has no plan to regulate OTT services.
Users punished for their connections and readership
In Zimbabwe, Pastor Evan Mawarire was arrested in July 2016 after his YouTube videos criticizing the country’s leadership sparked the #ThisFlag social media campaign and inspired nationwide protests.
In Ethiopia, charges against an opposition politician and student protesters principally cited evidence gleaned from social media. Pseudonymous accounts offered limited protection and raised the risk of mistaken identity. A man in Uganda was charged on suspicion of operating the popular Facebook page Tom Voltaire Okwalinga, but he denied being responsible for the page, which frequently accused senior leaders of corruption and incompetence.
A longer roster of forbidden topics
At least 13 countries, including Sudan, blocked content serving the LGBTI community on moral ground. Digital activism, for example drew the ire of officials. In The Gambia, a Facebook post calling on young people to join peaceful protests disappeared in April 2016 and was replaced with a warning to abide by the law; the protest organizer left the country, citing death threats. Because online mobilization amplifies discontent, authorities in many countries sought to shut it down even when the issues at stake were local.
Images draw greater scrutiny
World leaders proved particularly sensitive to altered images of themselves circulating on social media. In Egypt, a photo depicting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with Mickey Mouse ears resulted in a three-year prison term for the 22-year-old student who posted it on Facebook. Three people in Zimbabwe were arrested for photos of President Robert Mugabe that they shared in satirical social media posts.
Journalists were often arrested for indiscretion in image sharing
Police in Kenya arrested journalist Yassin Juma for using Facebook to report on and share photos of casualties in an attack on Kenyan forces stationed in Somalia. Egyptian photojournalist Ali Abdeen was arrested in April 2016 for covering protests against the transfer of Egyptian islands to Saudi Arabia. He was convicted in May of inciting illegal protests, publishing false news, and obstructing traffic, though his employers at the news website El-Fagr confirmed that he was working on assignment.
Fighting for internet freedom and digital rights
Using the hashtag #NoToSocialMediaBill, Nigerian digital rights organizations launched a multifaceted campaign to defeat a “Frivolous Petitions Prohibition Bill” that threatened to constrain speech on social media. Alongside significant digital media activism, civil society groups organized a march on the National Assembly, gathered signatures for a petition presented during a public hearing on the bill, and filed a lawsuit at the Federal High Court in Lagos, all of which contributed to the bill’s withdrawal in May 2016.