100 Hours in the Dark: How an Internet Election Blackout Affected the Ugandan Poor

When Uganda ordered the internet shut down on the eve of the presidential election, peanut seller Susan Tafumba’s business collapsed.

The 34-year-old sells peanuts at Kampala’s Nakawa Market, but much of her business now runs through a mobile phone app that customers use to order goods for delivery in motorcycle taxis. “Usually the app makes us more money than those people who come to market every day, but we have lost customers,” said Tafumba, one of countless small merchants whose livelihoods increasingly dependent on technology were affected by the closure.

“Now, we are working normally after the return of the Internet. I am waiting for the orders to start coming in,” he said, adding that he lost about 300,000 Ugandan shillings ($ 81). The East African nation lifted the blackout on Monday, more than 100 hours after imposing it the day before the January 14 elections.

Authorities apologized for the inconvenience and said the closure was to avoid outside interference in the election, that longtime leader Yoweri Museveni would win against popular singer turned politician Bobi Wine. Digital rights activists said the move hit earnings and left citizens unable to pay bills, send money to family, or move.

The ban on social media platforms, which authorities have claimed to be biased, remains in place, but they are accessible via virtual private networks (VPNs). “The shutdown meant denying people access to their livelihoods,” said Felicia Anthonio, a supporter of #KeepItOn, a global movement fighting the shutdown of the internet at digital rights group Access Now.

“Businesses in the formal and informal sectors, education, health, media, civil society groups and many others, which increasingly rely on the Internet and digital platforms to continue their businesses, have suffered a strong impact “. Internet Freedom Monitor Netblocks estimates that the nearly five-day shutdown cost the Ugandan economy about $ 9 billion.

This includes mobile money transactions – which many Ugandans rely on for payments – as well as e-commerce, airline reservations, and app-based taxi services. The financial Technology and the Service Providers Association estimates that companies in the sector lost at least 66 billion Ugandan shillings ($ 17.89 million) a day during the closure.

This included companies like Safe Boda, a motorcycle taxi search app with over 22,000 drivers in Kampala, which reported its employees could not earn. “Since our work is done on the Internet, everything has fallen apart. We weren’t able to work, ”said Angel, a 36-year-old driver who uses the Safe Boda app.

“I also struggled with mobile money because some networks were closed. I wanted to send money to my mother who stays outside Kampala, but I couldn’t.” BUILDING CONFIDENCE

Wine denounced widespread fraud and said the mass passage meant he could not communicate with his observers at polling stations and share evidence of electoral violations. According to DataReportal, there are more than 10 million internet users in Uganda in 2020, about 24% of the country’s population.

Digital rights activists said the internet blackout was a deliberate attempt by the government to keep citizens and the rest of the world in the dark during election times, such as state crackdowns on politicians, the media and civil society. While this is the first time Uganda has blocked the internet, other forms of online restrictions during elections are not unusual, they said.

The government banned social media and money transfers in 2016 polls and blocked text messages in the 2011 election. In 2006, the authorities also blocked sites critical of the government. Juliet Nanfuka from CIPESA, an organization that promotes digital rights, said there has been “a steady increase in the way the state deals with digital rights, particularly during election periods.”

“Last year, the coronavirus pandemic forced many companies to go online. People had just started building trust in that aspect of the digital economy and then the government imposed the blackout “,” Movements like these by the state break the trust we are trying to build in being part of a digital society “.

($ 1 = 3,690,0000 Ugandan shillings)

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is automatically generated from a syndicated feed.)

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  • 100 Hours in the Dark: How an Internet Election Blackout Affected the Ugandan Poor