Internet tech giants faces backlash from African leaders as social media a threat to their rule

Bloomberg — Uganda’s shutdown of social-media sites in January, right before a disputed election handed President Yoweri Museveni a sixth term, dealt a devastating blow to rice trader Elizabeth Nagunda: Her sales slowed to a near-halt.

“Before I would advertise, market my products on Facebook, WhatsApp, and even get customer orders” via those platforms, she said in an interview in Kampala, the capital. “I can’t run any more adverts online. Even if I do, there are no people to view them.”

Facebook Inc. and Google are spending billions trying to get more people online in Africa, but the internet giants are now facing a backlash from governments worried about social-media platforms being used to remove them from power.

These platforms, including Twitter, gave opposition politicians access to previously unreachable audiences and have been used to organize protests—most notably during the Arab Spring that toppled leaders from Tunisia to Egypt.
Now governments in sub-Saharan Africa are increasingly ordering internet service providers to shut their gateways or throttle data traffic when confronted with dissent or the threat of electoral defeat.
Facebook, Twitter and other companies have pushed back, condemning the disruptions and blocking accounts they allege are being used to undermine democracy—actions that further raised the authorities’ ire and led to several outright bans on their services. Access Now and the #KeepItOn Coalition, which campaign for an end to internet shutdowns, documented 20 intentional disruptions in a dozen African nations last year.

Ethiopia was among the worst violators of online freedom in 2020, imposing at least four outages in a bid to contain ethnic unrest and restrict the flow of information during a conflict in its northern Tigray region.
More curbs have been introduced in 2021. The latest was in Senegal, where the government imposed an outage earlier this month after the arrest of an opposition leader triggered the most violent demonstrations in years.

Supporters of Senegal’s opposition candidate, Ousmane Sonko, demonstrate in Dakar on March 8. 
Photographer: John Wessels/AFP
“Not only do internet shutdowns interfere with the rights to access information, freedom of expression, and other fundamental freedoms, they are used in attempts to hide egregious human-rights violations,” Access Now said in a report published March 3.

Tech executives have long preached about offering their services to the estimated 3 billion people who remain offline, about 700 million of them in Africa. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has argued that connectivity is a basic human right.

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Early endeavors to get more people online seemed more fanciful than serious. Facebook tried to build a gigantic drone to provide high-altitude connectivity but grounded the Aquila project in 2018 after only two test flights, the first of which ended in what was described as a “structural failure.” Google—using a project called Loon—attempted something similar with helium-filled balloons sailing into the stratosphere, scrapping it in 2021 after the unit failed to develop a viable business model.

Now the tech companies are taking the opposite approach, driven in part by a desire to win over a vast swathe of new users. Facebook and some of the world’s largest telecom carriers are spending almost $1 billion building a sub-sea internet cable that will connect Europe to the Middle East and 16 African countries. Google has announced its own sub-sea cable connecting Europe to Africa, using a route down the west coast.

For now, companies have limited scope to counter internet shutdowns. Social media platforms are also trapped between attempting to be seen to counter misinformation and working with local governments to provide internet access.