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Clampdowns in Africa carry a big cost

The tactics of the Tanzanian government are still a far cry from the old-school, die-hard tactics in some other countries, where the government simply shuts down social media, or even the internet, entirely.

Chad, for example, frequently shuts down all social media platforms. In Ethiopia, in the five months leading up to its most recent elections, the only place in the country that had internet access was Addis Ababa, and the Anglophone regions of Cameroon have endured 230 days without the internet since January last year, according to Accessnow.org.

A global study conducted by the Centre for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution found that, between July 2015 and June 2016, there were 81 disruptions to internet. Of the 19 countries in which these took place, seven were from Africa — the Republic of Congo, Uganda, Algeria, Chad, Ethiopia, Libya and Morocco. Most frequently, the disruptions took the form of national internet shutdowns, followed by subnational mobile internet shutdowns.

Internet activities contribute a significant amount to most economies. The Boston Consulting Group estimates that Britain derives about 12.5% of its gross domestic product from these activities, South Africa 2.5% and even relatively immature economies such as Indonesia thanks the internet for 1.5% of its economic output. So, gagging internet use takes its toll.

READ MORE: Online tax hurts the poor

Taking into account the national gross domestic product of each country, the number of days affected and the extent of the population affected, the Brookings report calculated how much money each country had lost because of the shutdowns in the 2015-2016 period.

The biggest loser in Africa was the Republic of Congo ($72.5-million), followed by Algeria ($20.5-million) and Ethiopia ($8.5-million). Even Libya, which recorded a shutdown of just less than one hour in the year, lost $414 000 in that time.

Worldwide, the study estimates that a total of $2.4-billion was lost because of internet clampdowns.

The author, Darrell West, who is the vice-president and director of governance studies at the Brookings centre where the report was written, said, because the study did not include estimates for lost tax revenues associated with blocked digital access, the effect on worker productivity, barriers to business expansion connected with the shutdowns or the loss of investor, consumer and business confidence resulting from the disruptions, “the $2.4-billion figure is a conservative estimate that likely understates the actual economic damage”.

The study also highlighted a worrying trend — dabbling with internet connectivity is becoming an increasingly popular tactic worldwide.

“State interference with internet services is becoming more common, even in democratic states,” West said.

“Whether their ostensible motivations are public security or political self-preservation, government officials should understand the wide-ranging and destructive consequences of these moves.

“Shutting down access to popular services or to the whole internet, even for a short period of time, undermines economic growth, puts lives in jeopardy, separates people from friends and family, and erodes confidence in the governments that take such drastic and ill-advised steps.”

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Thalia Holmes
Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.

She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.

After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. 

The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. 

She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.     

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