The government of Uganda ordered telecommunications companies to block social media on Thursday as the country prepared to vote for national elections. Journalists recorded that Twitter and Facebook were blocked, but circumvention of the block was possible, in some instances, through the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Leading mobile internet service provider MTN confirmed the order from the government in a Tweet.
The UCC has directed MTN to disable all SocialMedia & MobileMoney services due to a threat to Public Order & Safety. pic.twitter.com/BqPcUyW0QF
— MTN Uganda (@mtnug) February 18, 2016
The blocking in the country followed an outage earlier this week, confirmed by Access Now, that may have been a test of the telcos’ blocking capability. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights has since spoken with Ugandan authorities to discuss the human rights impact of their blocking order.
Uganda has clamped down on free expression and privacy in the lead up to this month’s presidential election. The country acquired sophisticated surveillance software at the close of 2015, when the military bought Finfisher’s malware intrusion software, which allows the infection of devices and monitoring by operators of the software. This year the government has also intimidated and attacked journalists, paralyzing journalist Andrew Lwanga from the waist down for covering a street protest in January.
Although MTN publicly announced the blocking order, the company shared the user data of about 10 million subscribers with the ruling party in the run up to the elections. In turn, MTN users received a text message from the National Resistance Movement’s Tuongee Communication Center encouraging them to vote for the sitting president, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. The Ugandan Election Commission, tasked with overseeing voting on February 16, also banned mobile phones from polling stations. MTN has a complex relationship on the continent, where it faces a nearly $4 billion fine in Nigeria for, ironically, safeguarding the anonymity of its users by not requiring the registration of identification for SIM cards.
Internet shutdowns harm everyone
Internet shutdowns do not restore order, protect rights, or keep people safe. They are a blunt instrument that should never be wielded by a democratic regime that protects human rights. Yet they are on the rise worldwide. In 2015, we recorded nearly 20 shutdowns across the globe. This is a very important opportunity to be vigilant about defending and extending digital rights especially as previous research shows internet Shutdowns and state violence go hand in hand.
Last year, experts at the U.N. issued an historic statement declaring that internet “kill switches” can never be justified under international human rights law, even in times of conflict. And Access Now urged African Union and U.N. leaders to take action on a similar shutdown in Burundi. Whether shutdowns take place in in Egypt, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Niger, Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Burundi, or any other place, shutdowns to quell protests or silence dissent are not just ineffective. They are a clear violation of our fundamental rights.