Could Uganda's social media shutdown happen here?

Wednesday February 24 2016

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Last week Uganda held its general election and on voting day, the Uganda Communication Commission shut down social media sites and mobile money services in the country.

The decision followed complaints from President Yoweri Museveni, who was seeking re-election, that the opposition was allegedly “spreading lies through social media” and “bribing voters” through mobile money services.

Next year, Kenya heads into its own general election and one wonders if such things can also happen in Kenya. The simple answer is “yes, of course”. However in Kenya, the rationale would have to be more sophisticated and legally justified.

Rather than just one candidate’s claims, Kenyan authorities have robust legal provisions in the Kenya Information Communication (2013) Amendment Act (KICA 2013) that could be abused.

Whereas the Constitution guarantees Kenyans freedom of expression and association, these freedoms are limited in certain cases. For example, the Kenya Information and Communications (Amendment) Act 2013 says in Section 5B that:

The right to freedom of expression shall not extend to-

(a)the spread of propaganda for war;

(b)incitement to violence;

(c)the spread of hate speech;

In a country with our ethnic history, it is not difficult to think of ways in which people might fall foul of these clauses.

In addition, the hawk-eyed Interior ministry can clamp down on the Internet by invoking a cocktail of clauses in the Security Laws Amendment Act (2014). For example, it amends the National Intelligence Service Act in Part V to provide for “special operations” aimed at safeguarding national security.

Then there is the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was amended to allow the National Security Organs to “intercept communication for the purposes of detecting, deterring and disrupting terrorism in accordance with procedures to be prescribed by the Cabinet Secretary”.

In short, Kenya has laws that could he abused to switch off the Internet.  However, just like the Ugandan authorities discovered, switching off the Internet is actually easier said than done.

The technical nature of the Internet has no respect for legal provisions and has many tools that can circumvent shutdown orders, and many users in Uganda quickly got apprised of technical workarounds and were soon back onto social media.

Using proxy or virtual private networks (VPN) services, they simulated traffic as if they were physically located outside Uganda, when in fact they were domiciled inside the country.  

Since foreign or externally originated traffic was not blocked from accessing social media, Ugandans got to access their social media sites by using VPNs- despite the official government restrictions.

In analogue terms, this is similar to initiating a reverse call and getting someone from abroad to call you, rather than you originating the call.

The call session is registered as foreign and is allowed through, ultimately serving the communication purpose while circumventing the initial restrictions.

As Kenyans move towards 2017, and depending on the intensity of the political contention, we might also walk into a state-engineered Internet blackout. 

After all, the Swahili wise men used to say that if you see your neighbour being shaved, get ready for your turn.

Just like the Ugandans, many Kenyans will find technical workarounds to circumvent such an Internet blackout – unless the government has plans to invest heavily in Chinese-type firewalls.

Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at the Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT. Email: [email protected], Twitter: @jwalu