Hi! Welcome to Semafor Africa where we dig into some of the biggest stories around the continent three times a week.
I spent part of my Thursday morning moderating a discussion with some very impressive panelists about how authoritarian regimes manage access to internet connectivity. It was both eye-opening — and troubling — to hear how countries like Iran, Russia, and of course China are adopting more advanced methods to cut off the open web to their citizens.
It was notable that no individual African country came up in the discussion, but that isn’t because African countries aren’t also trying to disrupt the internet or social media services. As you will see in our stories and elsewhere, almost every political upheaval and coup story starts with a report about locals noticing the internet slowing down or just being cut off altogether. Access Now, the digital rights non-profit, notes that popular protest and active conflict were the most frequent reasons for internet shutdowns in 2022, accounting for over half of the nearly 200 shutdowns documented. Google’s Jigsaw unit, which hosted our panel, is concerned that as the world moves into what it sees as a “new era of geopolitical instability” this will become even more common.
Listening to what these other countries are doing, and understanding that some of these technical solutions can be bought off the shelf, my concern is that some authoritarians on the continent will have access to more advanced and targeted disruptive technologies than the crude methods used today. It might end up affecting fewer people, but the impact might have even more damaging consequences.