Clients surf the internet in Congo Federico Scoppa/Getty Images

Freeing Africa’s Internet

Last year, the UN Human Rights Council approved a resolution affirming that, “rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression.” Although the resolution is not binding, it offers a starting point for ensuring that governments allow citizens to use the Internet as a tool for maximizing political participation.

WASHINGTON, DC – Much to the dismay of the government in Addis Ababa, “Zone 9” has become a household name in Ethiopia. Since 2012, this small group of journalists-turned-online activists has used social media to campaign for political freedoms and civil liberties in their country. The group’s success – measured, for example, by the flood of likes and comments on its Facebook page – has come in spite of government efforts to silence the writers, including the arrest of six members in 2014 on trumped-up terrorism charges.

Ethiopia’s government is not alone in seeking to consolidate political power by restricting what citizens say online. Across Africa, governments are enacting legislation to restrict Internet access and outlaw criticism of elected officials. Digital campaigners face myriad censorship tactics, including “Border Gateway Protocol” attacks, “HTTP throttling,” and “deep packet inspections.”

The irony, of course, is that censorship rarely quiets the disaffected. Rather than quelling dissent, government intervention only inspires more people to take their grievances to WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms, where Africans are increasingly challenging corrupt governments, exposing rigged elections, and demanding to be heard.

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