In the fight against government-ordered internet blackouts, where are Africa’s mobile providers?

Published February 6, 2017 by lagmen

Some African governments are concerned about the use of Whatsapp as an organizing tool.

It’s been more than two weeks since Cameroon’s English-speaking regions, roughly 20% of the country, had its internet access switched off. Cameroon’s government pressured local telcos to shut down access after protests against the French-language-dominated government’s marginalization of people from Anglophone regions.

The government is keen to stop protest organizers from using apps like WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter to get the word out efficiently. Activists in Cameroon’s big cities, the notably French-dominant Yaoundé and Douala, had been making their voices heard with the #BringBackOurInternet hashtag.

Much has been written about the role of the government in enforcing the shutdown. But this issue is bigger than just the 34-year old government of president Paul Biya. In 2016, the United Nations adopted a Human Rights Council resolution on promoting and protecting freedom online. That year, the internet was switched off to stifle dissent in 11 African countries.

Some have suggested democratic African countries should follow the UN’s lead and enshrine internet freedom in local laws. But there is well-placed skepticism as to whether countries with weak democratic practices would adhere to even their own laws in the event of a political crisis.

What’s interesting is that no one ever brings up the role of the phone companies in these shutdowns. Most Africans connect to the internet via mobile phone. In the case of Cameroon, there’s evidence the phone companies were worried about losing their licenses if they didn’t comply with the local regulator’s demands.

MTN is the dominant network in Cameroon, with a 51% market share. It is also easily one of Africa’s largest homegrown companies, with more than 229 million customers in Africa and Middle East and annual revenue of $15 billion. The second-largest network, with 35% market share, is France’s Orange, which is one of the largest networks in the world, bringing in more than $40 billion in annual revenue.

In dollar terms, these companies are larger than many of the small- to medium-sized African countries they serve. They have real clout. They can push back. Phone companies may not be able to stop the shutdowns altogether, but they can certainly make it difficult for the next government to think about this strategy.

There should be more to being a telco license holder than just expanding service delivery and faster internet speeds. Will Africa’s mobile service providers be willing to take up the corporate social responsibility they have to the customers they serve?

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