Editor's Note: The author of this article, Khattab Hamad, currently works at Canar.
Governments around the world implement policies to allow massive Internet surveillance and censorship. In Sudan, for example, users are not completely safe or free on the internet. According to Freedom House, Sudan's internet freedom rating is just 25 on a scale of 0 to 100, least free to freest respectively.
In recent years, Sudan went through two major internet blocks that severely impeded basic communication and sharing during periods of high political burden, which caused exponential risk and loss.
In the midst of a revolution that ultimately led to the overthrow of dictator Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese government blocked access to social media such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram on December 19, 2018. To circumvent the blockade, citizens used Private virtual networks to access social media. On February 26, 2019, the government unblocked social media sites, but digital rights activists and human rights defenders called on citizens to continue using private virtual networks because privacy is not guaranteed.
On April 11, 2019, when the Bashir regime fell and the transitional military council took power, citizens began to feel safer to use the internet without a private virtual network.
Sudanese returned to having the internet blocked from June 3 to July 9, 2019, amid protests and requests from a civilian government. June 3 marked the one year anniversary of the brutal dispersal of security forces by a sit-in near the military headquarters in which protesters demanded a civilian government. At least one hundred protesters died. To circumvent this total blockade, protesters used various methods to disseminate urgent information but faced immense difficulties.
Sudan has four major internet service providers, Zain, MTN, Sudatel and Canar. Zain, MTN and Sudatel have a GSM (global system for mobile communications) license that allows them to provide internet services through mobile networks. Canar does not have a GSM license, but provides internet through fixed and wireless lines, leased lines.
This Netblocks chart shows internet measurements across networks of four operators gathered on December 21, 2018. Each dot represents a request for access to some sites, including large platforms like Twitter and WhatsApp. Red dots indicate that the user's request was not fulfilled due to the “unsubscription” of the service. The brown dots indicate that the user's request was not fulfilled due to time limit status.
After the revolution – total blockade
On June 3, 2019, the internet was rendered inoperative throughout Sudan by a political decision of the Transitional Military Council. Sudanese internet users were able to go online again on July 9, 2019, by a court decision ordering all service providers to restore internet access.
Sudan's 2018 Telecommunications and Mail Regulatory Law gives the regulatory authority the right to discontinue any communication and telecommunication or broadcast station if it violates the law. This imprecise provision does not provide further details, allowing authorities to interpret it as they see fit to restrict access to services.
This graph of NetBlocks shows the effective internet availability of a provider between May 27 and July 9, 2019:
This graphic from a Google transparency report shows traffic and incoming requests to Google from Sudan.
To block the internet this time, authorities disabled the “access point name” or APN, on the mobile data network. With this method, users cannot see the data signal on their device screens.
Canar initially refused to block internet services for its users, but had to disable Wimax and fix LTE services on June 5, 2019, as seen in Figure 2, which compares Canar's traffic with other operators. .
In this period, Canar and Sudatel continued to provide internet service through fiber optic infrastructure – expensive for individual users – as they were not forced to interrupt access to these services. As a result, the few users who could afford these services were able to continue to spread political news with the global community through the internet.
Sudanese digital rights activists took several actions to circumvent the internet blockade.
The Union of Technology and Communication Professionals sent nearly a million short text messages from servers outside Sudan to send directives from revolutionary leaders and to refute rumors and disinformation.
Activists also accessed the internet with a subscriber identification module card, better known as a SIM card, from neighboring countries – essentially through roaming service – although authorities later also disrupted those cellular networks.
Activists also used proxy servers, which “act as intermediaries for requests from clients seeking resources from servers that provide those resources.” These services allowed users to bypass censorship and internet filtering.
Some Sudanese abroad suggested offering internet through VSAT (satellite technology that provides internet) but that option was not possible due to the high cost and risk of delivery at that time.
Internet blocking and brutal repression
During the internet blockade of June and July 2019, Sudanese in and out of the country were scared because they were unable to communicate with their families or access or disseminate essential information.
According to media reports, on June 3, 2019, security forces raped dozens of protesters and threw many bodies into the Nile River. They are believed to have killed more than 100 protesters in the crackdown, although the exact number is not yet known. dead. Rights groups believe they blocked the internet to prevent leaks of information or evidence of violations.
Although many organizations were working to offer basic services such as water, food, health and education during the blockades, they failed to meet people's needs due to a lack of internet connectivity.
Intentional internet disruptions are considered a violation of fundamental rights and freedoms, and in July 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a consensus resolution condemning internet blockades.
A total blockage of the internet poses a serious risk to the economy. Internet connectivity provides essential communication and encryption tools necessary to store data securely and conduct business effectively.
According to the report of the Regulatory Authority for Telecommunications and Mail, the telecommunications sector contributes to the Sudanese economy by 14% (5.2% as a direct contribution and 8.8% as an indirect contribution).
According to statistics from NetBlocks via its Block Cost tool, the Sudan economy lost more than one and a half million US dollars during the internet block period from June 3 to July 9, 2019, not counting additional losses due to a drop in consumer and investor confidence.
According to Al Jazeera, the losses for companies and people with internet connections exceeded $ 750 million in the 37 days of the blockade that started on June 3, 2019. The World Bank estimated daily losses due to the blockade at $ 45 million. . According to a 2019 Quartz Africa report, internet blockages cost the Sudanese economy $ 1.8 billion.
Zain's direct losses were 207 million Sudanese pounds (4.36 million dollars), representing 26% of his monthly income. The related indirect costs were caused by a loss of monthly income, network operating costs, legal fees and a drop in emerging businesses.
Future without blockages?
To imagine a future in Sudan without internet blockages, the authorities must work on various laws. First, a law that establishes net neutrality so that the internet remains free and open, even in political crises. Then a law that penalizes denial of internet access. And third, a law to avoid breaches of user privacy and personal data.
Taking these steps will make it more difficult to decide on a future block.