In this study, information controls is utilized as a broad term to define actions that governments, the private sector, and other actors take through the internet and other information communications technologies to deny (e.g, internet filtering), disrupt (e.g., network shutdowns), monitor (e.g, network surveillance), or secure (e.g., encryption) information for political ends. Information controls can also be non-technical and implemented through legal and regulatory frameworks, including informal pressures placed on private companies.
The individual country reports can either be read separately as ‘stand-alone’ reports or conjunctively in order gain a deep regional comparative perspective. All the reports rely on research questions based on Citizen Lab’s ‘mixed methods’ research approach. In the case of Zimbabwe, we further relied on the framework by Deibert and Rohinski which classifies information controls into first, second and third generations ; while in Zambia’s case, we relied on the criteria set out in what is commonly known as the APC-LA RUE Framework for Assessing Freedom of Expression and Related Rights on the Internet (APC-LA RUE Framework). In respect to Swaziland, the report classifies content controls in accordance with the criteria set out in the 2011 report of the former Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue.
Network measurements undertook did not seem to reveal any strong evidence of censorship happening on any content during the testing period. This does not mean that censorship is not happening at all inside of Zimbabwe, but only that from the specific vantage point from which we ran measurements on a set of specific URLs we could not find signs of internet censorship occurring. The internet remains accessible and relatively free. While connectivity may be poor and unreliable, and suffer from the usual rent-seeking distortions found in other developing country environments, the same basic content is available there as in the most open-country contexts.
However, the fact that Zimbabweans can access most of the internet is by no means an indication that there are no state-sponsored internet information controls. Rather they are different and largely assume other forms such as those in the second and third generation of internet information controls. Through reliance on public order laws such as the Public Order and Security Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, social media such as WhatsApp and Facebook are monitored for content that is critical of the president, the police, and the army. Legitimate expression online is therefore criminalized, which leads to an environment of self-censorship.
Information controls in Zimbabwe present a mixed picture, influenced by a number of factors, mainly the government’s determination to entrench political domination. “Government is very conscious of security particularly where it relates to political power, political influence, undermining the state and state authorities” . Through a reliance on third-generation controls, the Zimbabwean government relies on a highly sophisticated, multidimensional approach to enhancing state control over national cyberspace. It concentrates on building capabilities for competing in informational space with potential adversaries and competitors. The focus is less on denying access than successfully competing with potential threats through effective counter-information campaigns that overwhelm, discredit, or demoralize opponents. It is also actively using surveillance and data-mining as means to confuse and entrap opponents. The state is enhancing jurisdiction over national cyberspace and expanding the powers of state surveillance. These include warrantless monitoring of internet users and usage.
In recent years, Zambia witnessed an increased reliance on both second and third generation internet controls, driven by diverse motives. Under the second-generation controls, both administrations of Presidents Sata and Lungu legalized content controls through the enforcement of the existent public order, secrecy, and morality laws. This includes, for example, anti-pornography, slander, and defamation across the online environment in an uneven and partial manner. The country also faced connectivity problems due to poor internet resources infrastructure. Although the country continued to block and filter “offensive” websites during the period under review, the picture changed in the period leading up to and including the 2016 elections. Out of a total of 1,303 websites tested for censorship in Zambia during and following its 2016 general election period, only 10 of those sites presented signs of DNS, TCP/IP and HTTP interference. Previously blocked news outlets appeared to be accessible throughout the duration of the testing period. However no blocked pages detected as part of this study could confirm cases of censorship. The findings illustrate that connections to the websites of the World Economic Forum, the Organization of American States (OAS), and an online-dating site (pof.com) failed consistently from Zambia’s MTN network across the testing period, while failure rates from control vantage points were below 1%, indicating these sites might have been blocked.
Pornography and sites supporting LGBT dating also appeared to be inaccessible throughout the testing period and such blocking can potentially be legally justified under Zambia’s Penal Code and Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 2009. However, it remains unclear why connections to other websites, such as Pinterest, may have been tampered with during Zambia’s 2016 general elections. The network tests run in Zambia aimed at identifying “middle boxes” capable of performing internet censorship did not reveal the presence of censorship equipment. However, this does not mean that censorship equipment is not present in the country, just that these particular tests were not able to highlight its presence.
The results from the technical measurements appear to confirm views from some of our interviewees that the government had realised the futility of mass blockades, but instead chose to resort to a number of third generation controls in the run up tothe 2016 presidential elections: first, it created an environment that promoted mass blogging- the intent of such information revolution or campaigns is to effect cognitive change rather than to completely deny access to online information or services. Government also delayed the passage of an access to information law, thus creating an environment where it can either allow or deny access to information at whim. On a positive note, the current and previous governments supported Internet Government Forums and actively take part in them.
Nevertheless, government is not consistently taking steps to protect human rights online. For example, there are specific restrictions on online content, which include the criminalization of legitimate expression, including that of defamation. Such criminalization contributes to an environment of self-censorship. Second, although the law does not impose intermediary liability on ISPs, Zambia does not have a framework that provides detailed guidance on the issue, thereby leaving the door open for future governments to impose such liability. Third, Zambia, like most African countries, lacks laws that adequately protect the right to privacy, treatment of private data, and facilitation of access to information.
Despite being a small, predominantly rural country with a proportionately small population, Swaziland severely lacks proper communication facilities, including the internet. The internet facilities are very poor and the population doesn’t enjoy much internet coverage. Since the internet is not firmly established in Swaziland, there isn’t a well-developed internet governance framework in the country. Despite the fact that internet in Swaziland dates back to early 1995, cyber security awareness is a new phenomenon and there is little discourse on it so far, save for such basics as digital security training. The Swaziland government, mostly through ISPs, disrupts and disconnects network infrastructure for political and partisan reasons. There are recorded cases of “just on time” denial of service, especially to disrupt trade union activities that may expose the monarch to international censure. There have also been incidents of internet blocking and filtering, especially those of the political opposition and trade unions.
Further, the Swazi government criminalises and attributes political meaning to online speech. Government officials announced plans to censor any information shared on the internet via social media platforms. If passed, the law will ban Facebook and Twitter users from criticising its autocratic ruler, King Mswati III. Also, the Swaziland Constitution does not grant absolute rights for freedom of expression. The freedoms are limited by broad interpretations of statutes that restrict expression in the interest of public order and safety, national security, morality, and health. For instance, the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act and the Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA) 2008 are used by officials to suppress freedom of expression on the internet and induce an environment of self-censorship. The political environment in Swaziland, presided over by an absolute monarch and characterised by culture of deference and fear, contributes to a culture of self-censorship. It is because of this environment that not much is known or written on Swaziland.
Overall, while there are unconfirmed reports that numerous African countries are increasing their first-generation technical capabilities, it appears second- and third-generation controls are increasing. These cannot be detected through technical network measurements, but require detailed local political economy knowledge. Future information controls research should increasingly combine technical data and in-country political economy context. Technical partners such as OONI would contribute technical capacity while local partners in repressive environments assist in deploying probes and country context analysis. This first step should be just that: a first step with many more to come. Otherwise, Africa will remain unknown in terms of true internet freedom and the danger of virtual censorship.