Sunday, 30 April 2017

Technology and Politics Clash In Cameroon As Government Restores The Internet

Local techies also coordinated a local and global response to the internet blackout. “Internet activists reacted very quickly. Rebecca coined the hashtag #BringBackOurInternet. Somebody came up with the visual, a public letter was drafted and signed by many different people and organizations asking that internet be restored,” said Walla.


“We set out to make as many people aware as possible of what was going on,” said Enonchong. The activists also “made sure the social media campaigns included the handles of Cameroon’s president, key political officials, and institutions,” said Walla.

#BringBackOurInternet attracted the attention and support of a number of individuals and organizations, becoming a Twitter cause célèbre. Edward Snowden chimed in several times with Twitter support. Global organizations such as the UN and Access Now intervened. Though the Vatican would not verify, one source (speaking on background) said presidential aides confirmed the Pope raised the internet shutdown during his March meeting with Biya.

The economic costs of Cameroon’s internet blackout also became apparent. In an email to TechCrunch, African e-commerce giant Jumia’s MD for Cameroon, Roland de Heere, said the internet outage led to an 18 percent decline in orders over the period. French telco Orange saw a 20 percent revenue drop in Cameroon. Access Now estimates the shutdown cost the country $4.5 million in economic activity.

There was also the international reputational risk. The Cameroonian government has taken to touting achievements of the country’s tech entrepreneurs.

“Ironically, senior officials were talking up Silicon Mountain at the same time the government had cut it off from the net,” said Enonchong. Cameroon’s Ministry of Telecoms announced several youth startup initiatives during the outage. Global press reported that the first African winner of Google’s annual coding competition, Cameroonian teen Nji Collins Gbah, lived in a blacked out town.
Technology and Politics Clash In Cameroon As Government Restores The Internet
On April 21, Cameroon’s government restored internet connectivity to the country’s Anglophone regions. A statement by the Minister of Communication included a caveat, that the government “reserved the right to restrict internet moving forward if citizens misused it.”

While Cameroon’s Minister of Economy and Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications did not respond to requests to speak for this story, the country’s Ambassador to the U.S. stated in a letter that “the conditions that led to the temporary suspension of Internet…have greatly improved. Therefore, Internet connectivity has been reinstated.”

As for lessons from Cameroon’s state forced internet blackout, “It’s a big mistake for governments in Africa or anywhere to underestimate the tech community,” said Enonchong. She also noted Cameroon’s digital debacle “politicized tech entrepreneurs who weren’t previously involved in politics” and sparked conversations between Cameroonian and global internet activists on best practices to overcome blackouts. This includes contingency plans―such as mesh networks―to bypass government network restrictions altogether, explained Enonchong.

Kah Walla underscored the effectiveness of local initiative paired to global support. “The victory is in the fact that Cameroonians came together, used social media, and used our internal pressure to bring the external pressure,” she said.

Walla also flagged Cameroon’s 2017 net blackout as an example of the complexity of contemporary tech and politics. “Internet is a basic right. Our government cut off access to that right and then used the internet to justify why,” she said. “But because some of us still had access, we were able to use the internet to bring back our internet.”

Jake Bright is a writer and author in New York City. He is co-author of The Next Africa.

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