Ethiopia’s Internet blackout: What’s up?

Evening, Tuesday May 30, 2017, Ethiopia’s ever-struggling internet totally went down. What followed was total shambles and a complete interruption of every services in the nation, that uses the net. In spite of Ethiopia’s decade-long net-filtering infamous record, the current blackout is unprecedentedly gross that barely left anything accessible.

Despite the grossness of the measure, the story was neither viral nor surprising, unlike previous total shutdowns, back in July 2016 and October 2016. It seems people are becoming accustomed with such drastic outages and outrages are evolved to normalization.

Dealing with a sole telecom service provider, the Internet in Ethiopia was quite grappling with multilevel challenges, politically as well as infrastructure wise. Although total outages are somehow a recent phenomena, however, Ethiopia pioneered Africa in filtering websites with political contents, inwhich it once dubbed as “the only sub-Saharan country actively engage in political Internet filtering”; selectively denying accessibility of some Social Media pages; and spying netizens. Infrastructure wise, Ethiopia is one of the least internetized nation on the planet, in which less than five percent of its population only have access to the Internet.

These and many other related factors cumulatively, puts this landlocked country in a sever risk of Internet disconnection.

Preambled so, in this post — which will be updated regularly — I’ll try to storify, Ethiopia’s current total Internet blackout that was imposed on May 30, 2017.

As per the real-time traffic to Google products and services data, the recent shutdown was imposed approximately at 9 pm EAT, on May 30, 2017.

Unlike some pf the previous total outages, the current blackout was drastic, so that there was no data signal — at all — which enables users to access any network.

Ironically, the total shutdown was not limited in affecting internet data receivers, rather it crippled the whole nation’s network, that took down all government websites — including ethionet.et, the sole ISP in the nation’s website as well as insa.gov.et, the nation’s network watcher’s websites.

Immediate after the blackout some speculative stories were calling that the outage could be a result of preventive exam leaking , citing the Ethiopian National Higher Education Entrance Exam, which began on May 31, 2017 with a recent disruption history.

However, it’s only after 48 hours of the outage that a government official verified the ‘preventive exam leaking’ explanation for local medias as well as international media outlets.

Contrarily, the ‘explanation’ was immediately refuted by officials from the National Educational Assessment And Examination Agency, an agency vested for administering and monitoring National Examinations in Ethiopia. Two officials of the Agency told DW Amharic that the Agency was never request Ethio telecom to shutdown the internet and explicitly asserts fear of exam leak couldn't be a reason for the total blackout.

Yet again — almost a week after the shutdown — reversing the exam watch body’s avowal, Government Communication Minister, reiterates his colleagues’ ‘fear of exam leak’ statement:

These inconsistent and contradictory reasons from different state officials backed by Ethiopia’s notoriety in filtering the net, opened the door wide for speculations behind the current outage. This essentially suggests that the outage is not as simple as reported, “Ethiopia turns off entire internet so students can’t cheat on exams”.
 
The disruption scaled

When we see the scale of the outage, as it aforementioned, the current scale of Internet shutdown has never happened since the advent of the Internet to Ethiopia almost two decades ago. Taking four of the major Internet outages in the last twelve months — using Google services traffic data — will make this ‘unprecedented’ contention clear.

On July 11, 2016, the Internet in Ethiopia was shutdown moments before students seat for National Examination. The shutdown was reasoned for “prevention of further exam leaks” as it happened a month ago, in which exam papers were leaked and posted on Social Medias. However, the shutdown was brief and short.

As the Google Search traffic data (left above) shows, data traffic request for Google services was plummeted to zero for a brief two days — July 11 and 12 — and restored back. Likewise, a month after the July 2016 outage another nation wide shutdown was imposed after a protest was called by activists on August 06, 2016. The Google Search traffic data (right above) shows the August 2016 total blackout was somehow extended and again restored back after three days.

Similarly, at the culmination of a year-long political protests in Ethiopia, the state was forced to declare a Six months long State of Emergency on October 08, 2016. Upon the the declaration, the usual target — the net — was one of the foremost targets of state of emergency. Again, as the Google Search traffic data (left above) from October shows, the Internet was out of service momentarily and partially restored a day after the total interruption. However, a total internet disruption for lengthy and extended days was imposed — for the first time — recently on May 30, 2017. As the Google Search traffic data (above right) shows, in spite of some relaxation on Broadband services after June 03, the internet in Ethiopia is still (June 06, 2017) effectively out of service.

On the other hand, notwithstanding that total net outage is sporadic and brief, however, blocking Social Media sites like YouTube, facebook, twitter, and so forth, for a long period is becoming customary and normal in Ethiopia. Especially, since the political protests started on November 2015. Using the Same Google Services traffic data as an indicator testifies the extent of Social Media outage in Ethiopia.

Visiting to Google’s free blog platform, Blogger and its video sharing service, YouTube since October 08, 2016 — the day the Ethiopia declares a State of Emergency — gives a starkly visible picture of the extent of Social Media blackout in Ethiopia. As the Data traffic for these two services shows, in Ethiopia, for the last couple of months Social Media platforms are blocked and made inaccessible. The recently imposed total outage only slammed the door completely for those people who were able to use various backdoor tools to circumvent the blockage.

It’d be early to take on the the political and economic cost of the current blackout, nonetheless, as it was shown from the past partial and total blackouts, it is easy to prognosticate how it’d be drastic and far-reaching.

Remember:

In 2016, Ethiopia is one of the top four Internet censors in the world preceded by China, Syria, and Iran.

Ethiopia is the most populous disconnected country in the world or the most populous member of the The Archipelago of Disconnection.

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