New report on Internet Data Traffic blocking during 2018 DRC’S election reveals that the Internet shut down during the DRC presidential election came from the central government

A new report by Sub Saharan African Cyber Threat Modelling reveals that the instruction to shut down the Internet during the DRC presidential election came from the central government, the implementation of the order and the actual blocking was decentralised with each ISP taking different times to implement the order .

Key findings indicates that Whereas previously in countries such as the Gambia (2016), the blocking was done by withdrawing the BGP prefixes, in the DRC, the networks were still up and running but traffic blocked. Routing remained mostly intact as the block appears to have been implemented on the data plane.

The researchers from Sub Saharan Africa Cyber Threat Modelling performed OONI network measurement tests in the Democratic Republic of Congo from the beginning of December until 30 December to examine whether websites were blocked during its 2018 presidential election. The situation in the country, according to the researchers in country Lubumbashi-based volunteer, “remained calm and everything was going well, with no major incidents, as the internet was working well’ except for Telegram app which presented some evidence of censorship. But on 31 December, teams of researchers lost contact with the volunteer who stopped running probes as the Internet stopped working completely. According to BBC News Africa, access to the Internet and social networks was shut down on Monday, December 31, 2018 on instructions from the Government in the DRC Internet users received the following message: “Dear customer, at the instruction of the government, our Internet services are suspended for an indefinite period,” said the Global Internet Service Provider in an SMS.

To technically confirm the Internet Blockade as well the shut down , the research teams at Sub Saharan Africa Cyber Threat Modelling mobilised their networks of technologists, local and international civil society. These included Qurium, CAIDA, Human Rights Watch, and Frontline Defenders. Together, they did this to examine whether a country-wide internet blackout was taking place and if it was, to work collaboratively in generating robust evidence to back the claims.

The 2018 presidential election

On December 30, citizens in the DRC went to the polls to elect a president to take over from Joseph Kabila, who had led the country since 2001. The vote, which was repeatedly rescheduled since 2016, took place amid tensions, as multiple opposition-aligned areas were excluded due to an ongoing ebola outbreak and violence. For example, just before the polling, two followers of Martin Fayulu, the other main opposition candidate, died and more than 40 were injured when police opened fire in the city of Lubumbashi. The announcement of the results took longer than expected leading local and international actors to accuse the Kabila led regime of clinging to power and attempting to rig the poll. In anticipation of violent protests, the United States of America deployed troops to Gabon.

E-voting irregularities

The 2018 elections followed previous ones which had been marred by serious irregularities. For example, prior to the 2018 presidential elections, two separate studies, including Westminster Foundation for Democracy and The Sentry raised concerns over the e-voting system.

Also, 10 days before the vote, a fire gutted one of the main electoral commission warehouses, destroying more than two-thirds of the electronic voting machines allocated for the capital Kinshasa. Although the cause of the fire was unconfirmed, the opposition supporters claimed the fire was the result of arson and accused Joseph Kabila, in power since 2001, of seeking an excuse to postpone the poll.

Amid allegations of collusion, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s UPDS leader, Felix Tshisekedi who took over from his father, Etienne Tshisekedi, when he died in February 2017 was declared the winner by the electoral management body. This was despite the fact that other observers, in particular, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, concluded that Martin Fayulu was the actual winner.

Internet shutdown

The internet was disconnected from 1 January 2019, as voters awaited the results of December 31’s presidential election. The international digital rights group NetBlocks reported “full blackouts” in the capital, Kinshasa, and the southern city of Lubumbashi, as well as disruptions to mobile connectivity in the eastern city of Goma.” Initially, telecoms minister Emery Okundji said he was unaware of the situation but subsequently Barnabe Kikaya bin Karubi a senior adviser to DRC President Joseph Kabila, said internet and text messaging services were shut down to preserve public order after “fictitious results” were circulated on social media. He believed that, “Doing otherwise could “lead [the country] straight toward chaos”

Technical analyses

Data Plane Block

According to IODA DRC data from the morning of 31 December to January 2019 (IODA data), only a few BGP prefixes were withdrawn, meaning that routing was mostly intact. Active probing connectivity dropped a bit and the network telescope seems mostly unaffected apart from the increase right before the shutdown. IODA suspected that the block was implemented on the data plane. Since their active probing time series doesn’t show a significant drop, it would appear, subject to speculation, ISPs dropped outgoing connections while leaving incoming connections intact

Intermediary responsibility

Internet and social media shutdowns have become more and more common across Africa and Asia in recent years, particularly as authoritarian governments look to China as the model for controlling what people can say and do online. But what makes the current strategies different from traditional, cruder forms of control? Is there a structural and technological shift that casts more responsibility and liability to the ISPs? For instance, although the instructions to shut down the Internet during the DRC presidential election came from the central government, the implementation of the order and the actual blocking was decentralised with each ISP taking different times to implement the presidential order.

Governments are devolving power out of practical necessity and relying on the cooperation of ISPs. Such changes challenge us to closely examine the role of private sector hosting services but also the differential responses to government orders, depending on either the ownership of or the proximity of the ISP to the government control. This requires a nuanced analysis of legal implications for attribution and accountability.

As the Citizen Lab has since observed, “Power and efforts to control can be pushed down in a distributed way. It is not practical for the government to directly control every aspect of censorship; they need the participation of the private sector. Pressuring companies to follow “self-discipline” is how the government can be effective and it helps if the ISPs are owned by organisations from countries that are sympathetic to the regime or if non-compliance may be met by harsh punitive measures such as licence withdrawal. An interesting example is Zimbabwe where Econet Wireless, whose owner had previously been at loggerheads with the regime but is now close to the new administration. While Econet has at some point resisted government orders to disclose confidential information, they complied with a government order to shut down services on 15 January 2019.

At a technical level, whereas previously in countries such as the Gambia (2016) the blocking was done by withdrawing the BGP prefixes, in the DRC, the networks were still up and running but traffic is blocked. Routing remained mostly intact as the block appears to have been implemented on the data plane.

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