Image: Joel Boupada/Associated Press
The small West African nation of Gabon has replaced its country-wide internet blockage with an "internet curfew" that experts say is creating an "unprecedented level of communication suppression since the Arab Spring" and appears to have no end in sight. Gabon's government rarely registers a blip on the radar of international news, but the blockage is the latest in a troubling trend of nations blocking the internet when they fear unrest.
The country held an election last week in which incumbent president Ali Bongo was narrowly re-elected amid widespread claims of fraud, which led to nationwide protests. Bongo ordered the internet cut off to the entire nation, which lasted for 104 hours between August 31 and September 5. Internet was only restored after a plea from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Bongo's opponent, Jean Ping, says that between 50 and 100 people have been killed in the election's aftermath.
It's easy to condemn the wholesale blockage of an entire nation's internet access, but the bad press has largely gone away now that some of the nation is able to get back online during certain hours. The thing is, Gabon has replaced one type of blockage with another, and the suppression seems likely to continue.
For the last four nights, Bongo has ordered 12-hour "internet curfews" extending from 6 PM to 6 AM, and social media is still blocked during all hours, indicating that the country is still trying to prevent its citizens from protesting against the government. (For what it's worth, Bongo has tweeted disparaging things about protesters and Ping throughout the outages.) Human rights groups say the curfew is an attempt to convince the international community that things are returning to normalcy.
"There is still harsh repression, people are missing, arbitrarily arrested, and terrified"
"We've never seen this internet curfew thing before," Doug Madory, a researcher at web analytics firm Dyn who has studied politically related internet outages all around the world, told me. "We're already in this phase internationally where, if you shut off all the routes to the internet, that's a highly visible thing. It's easy for someone like me to detect it."Madory says that his firm is considering there to be a nationwide blockage of the internet during the curfew, though it appears a small number of people may be able to get online via satellite connections. He told me Gabon is suffering from an "unprecedented level of communication suppression since the Arab Spring."
Gabon may be a small country, but the tactics it's using to quell protesters and suppress communication are gaining popularity worldwide. Access Now, an international digital rights group, told me that so far this year, it has recorded 40 separate internet blockages in 25 different countries."In 2015, we recorded 20 in a smaller number of countries," Deji Olukton, senior global advocacy manager at the organization told me. "It's kind of chicken-and-egg are we paying closer attention or are there more of them? Either way, it's not a positive thing at all for human rights."
Madory says that the outages he's seeing are less overt than they have been in the past as authoritarian regimes learn more subtle methods of control. After the coup attempt in Turkey earlier this summer, the government throttled social media access, then quickly restored it once it became clear that the majority of people supported the established government. In countries such as Ethiopia and India, internet is temporarily cut in small regions of unrest."We've seen that shutting down the internet precludes human rights violations. The internet goes down and then something terrible happens," Olukoton said, noting that social media was cut out in an Ethiopian region where more than 400 protesters were killed in April. "It seems to me governments are using internet outages as a license to commit human rights violations."For the last four years, Gabon has hosted the New York Forum Africa, which is an internet- and innovation-focused conference for the entire content; blocking the internet obviously contradicts those ideals."The curfew means that Ali Bongo doesn't want to appear as a head of state who compromises the economy of his country. It is more about appearances: There is still harsh repression, people are missing, arbitrarily arrested, and terrified," Julie Owono of Internet Sans Frontieres told me. "The result is exactly the same as a total shutdown: The economy can't function when exchanges are stopped for 12 hours. And, most importantly, citizens' right to free expression and communication is still violated."Want more Motherboard in your life? Then sign up for our daily newsletter.