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Watching and Calculating, African Governments Learn From the Arab Spring

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It's no secret that Africa houses some of the longest-serving and most repressive dictators on the planet. Even among the states that have progressed past authoritarian rule, many governments still restrict basic rights with heavy-handed and often violent tactics. It's also no secret that Africa has the smallest Internet penetration of any continent, though it also cannot be denied that the advent of cheap, web-enabled phones has been precipitating broad changes in the continent's Internet landscape. Up until recently, these two facts may have seemed only peripherally related. Most governments had taken a pretty laissez-faire approach to the Internet; it wasn't enough of an issue for most leaders to take the time to learn about, let alone address with policy. But as the Arab Spring continues to roar just a stone's throw North, tremors have rippled well into the heart of the continent. In response, many African governments have begun taking strong stances on Internet freedoms, even before most of their populations have had the chance to experience the free and open Internet as it was originally formulated.

I was exposed to this issue most notably two weeks ago when I was helping host a workshop for African journalists, bloggers and activists who work in at-risk environments. First, let me say, I have never been so honored to be in a room full of people for whom I could not have more respect and admiration. These were people who risked their lives, often on a daily basis, to hold their governments accountable. And what stories they had to tell. Living in Africa and trying to spread the benefits of the web to more Africans for the last nine months, I was astonished to discover just how advanced many repressive regimes have become in their tactics.

Egypt's ailing dictator, Hosni Mubarak, set a dangerous precedent when he shut off the entire country's Internet earlier this year. Whereas the dictators and repressive regimes of the past often dismissed technology as irrelevant, today, many have clearly grown wise. Frequently taking a page from China's playbook, countries have begun to make the Internet into yet another tool to restrict citizens' rights and crack down on dissident activities. Zimbabwe, for instance, regularly pinpointed as one of the most oppressive regimes in Africa, and known for employing brutally violent tactics against political opponents, has been particularly vigilant in repressive online freedoms. This February they took a step further. On the 13th, an ordinary 39-year-old Zimbabwean named Vikas Mavhudzi posted a comment to the Facebook page for the country's prime minister,

I am overwhelmed, I don't want to say Mr. or PM what happened in Egypt is sending shockwaves to dictators around the world. No weapon but unity of purpose worth emulating, hey.

Hardly an incendiary comment, wouldn't you agree? But somehow it seems discussing uprisings against dictators in other parts of the world became a crime in Zimbabwe. Just 11 days later, Mavhudzi became Zimbabwe's first "Facebook arrest" for his supposed "security threat" to the government.

And these activities have only spread in recent months. In March and April, states like Cameroon, Uganda and Sudan began taking steps to use the Internet to limit its citizens rights as well. Taking note of the prominent role Twitter in the recent uprisings in the middle east, Cameroon took steps to ban the SMS-to-Twitter connection that had been live for just five months. Uganda followed a similar tack. When the country's walk-to-work protests flared up in April, the government instructed ISPs to block Facebook and Twitter, allegedly causing 48-hour outages.

Sudan, however, may win for the most creativity among the three nations. After a number of protests broke out since January, the government warned that it will unleash a "batallion" of "cyber jihadists" to lead "online defence operations" and "crush Internet-based dissent." Despite the government's inventive nomenclature, it has yet to been seen exactly what these "cyber batallions" will do. So far, the only activity observed has been warnings posted on social media services against joining the protests that have erupted recently. However, if Sudan is taking cues from China, these groups of "cyber jihadists" could grow to frightening extents like China's secretive Internet police, actively monitoring, censoring and guiding online discussion.

This is unquestionably a problem for Africa. With the dawn of the Internet, many observers expounded that the web, by its very nature, would be a tool for democracy across the globe. Unfortunately, we have seen that the problem is much more nuanced than that. What we've seen is that, inherently, the technology is actually neutral, and it can be used for good just as well as ill. But more than that still, it's a problem that threatens the future of the Internet itself. With still more than two-thirds of the world's population yet to gain access to the web, the future of Internet policy still remains fundamentally uncertain. Fortunately, many central players have begun to take notice and take action, noting that human rights hold into the virtual world just as they do in the physical one. May it only continue.

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