The internet mysteriously went down during Kenyan protests, did Starlink provide refuge?

Here’s the news: the sky is blue. And in equally shocking news, in yet another African country, the internet mysteriously goes down in the midst of protests. If betting houses took bets on this kind of thing happening, I’d be a rich man. Here’s what’s going on in Kenya. There’s a bill called the Finance […] The post The internet mysteriously went down during Kenyan protests, did Starlink provide refuge? appeared first on Techzim.

The internet mysteriously went down during Kenyan protests, did Starlink provide refuge?
Starlink terminal

Here’s the news: the sky is blue. And in equally shocking news, in yet another African country, the internet mysteriously goes down in the midst of protests. If betting houses took bets on this kind of thing happening, I’d be a rich man.

Here’s what’s going on in Kenya. There’s a bill called the Finance Bill that recently passed in Kenya’s parliament. The public didn’t like that one bit because, among other things, the bill would introduce new taxes on a range of daily items and services, from egg imports to bank transfers.

You read that right, the Kenyan government was trying to pull a “Mthuli” and introduce taxes on eggs (like Zimbabwe did on sugar) and on bank transfers (like Zimbabwe did with the 2% IMTT), as well as on other daily items and services. The Kenyans weren’t having it and took to the streets to warn parliament against passing the bill.

Parliament proceeded to pass the bill anyway, and protests intensified, unfortunately leading to the death of about 13 people when the military stepped in to restore order.

However, the protests worked. The president said, “I concede,” concluding that the people had spoken and he would listen. So, the bill goes back to parliament and will have to be adjusted.

What’s particularly interesting to us in this story is what happened with the internet in Kenya when all this was going down.

Internet outages

Several organizations in Kenya are demanding answers from their government regarding the internet outages the country experienced during the protests.

KICTANet, a think tank interested and involved in ICT policy and regulation, the Internet Society Kenya Chapter, Paradigm Initiative, CIPESA, and AIRA released a joint press statement in which they stated,

Despite assurances on Monday, June 24th, from the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) that Internet access would not be restricted during the #RejectFinanceBill2024  protests, the events of June 25th paint a contrary picture with the Internet shutdown. This action violates provisions of the Constitution of Kenya and international human rights law, which guarantee fundamental rights and  freedoms, including freedom of expression, access to information, and peaceful assembly.

Global Internet observatory NetBlocks confirmed an Internet outage on June 25, 2024. Kenyan telecommunication companies Safaricom and Airtel attributed these disruptions to “outages on undersea cables.

Ah, the infamous old undersea cable challenges that only seem to strike when an African country is facing domestic troubles that necessitate restricting people’s ability to communicate and share information.

We have been in those very same shoes in Zimbabwe. The internet has mysteriously gone down when we needed it most.

The Kenyan organisations above want answers,

In light of the prevailing circumstances, it is important that Safaricom, Airtel, and other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) clarify who gave the orders for the shutdown and whether there was any official documentation or directive from the government or regulatory bodies.

Additionally, CA the sector regulator should clarify their role during the Internet shutdown, and how their actions aligned with its prior commitment to #KeepItOn.

Finally, we urge the Government of Kenya, including the Ministry of Information, Communications & The Digital Economy, and the Ministry of Interior & National Administration, to provide a comprehensive explanation regarding the internet shutdown. These ministries must ensure transparency and accountability by disclosing any directives issued and the rationale behind them. Furthermore, we call on these ministries to reaffirm their commitment to upholding the constitutional rights of freedom of expression, access to information, and peaceful assembly, and to take necessary measures to prevent future disruptions.

We’ve been there our Kenyan brothers and sisters

Good luck to you Kenyans, but if history holds, those answers will not be forthcoming. I don’t know much about Kenya, but if you are as “African” as the rest of us, and if President Ruto’s reputation is anything to go by, no satisfactory answers will be released.

In Zimbabwe, we did get some answers when this happened before. They came via our estranged billionaire son of the soil, Strive Masiyiwa. He owns the biggest mobile network operator in the country, and after one such outage, he told us,

This morning I was informed that the authorities in Zimbabwe have directed that all Internet services be shut down. As it was a written directive issued in terms of the law, non-compliance would result in immediate imprisonment of management on the ground.

Last week we were issued with a similar order in the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC].

We complied as directed.

The government never confirmed this version of events. They likely never will, but we can draw conclusions. Who are we trusting in this matter? Who stood to benefit from the shutdown – Econet, who lost a day’s revenue, or a government that temporarily shut down communication?

The directive Masiyiwa talked about usually comes with threats that disclosing the details of the order will result in consequences. Hence why it took a non-resident owner to disclose it.

So, there really is no reason to be mad at Safaricom, Airtel, or our Econet because it truly is bigger than them.

Starlink

Now, here’s where the Starlink evangelists come in and tout just how services like Starlink are a godsend in cases like these. Led by the maverick Elon Musk, the satellite internet service can ensure we still have internet access when our governments threaten conventional internet providers with imprisonment.

Luckily for us, Starlink is available in Kenya, and so we get an opportunity to see just how much it helped during the outage.

Well, some of you are going to be disappointed. Here’s what some Kenyans posted on the Starlink subreddit,

Hey all,

I am in country where we are in the middle of a nationwide protest against the government, including a Jan 6-esque storming of our parliament that occured about an hour ago. There seems to be a nationwide internet shutdown. I figured that my satellite based starlink service would give me an edge over the Fibre based options that I have been using for so long, but even with a VPN I seem to be in the same internetless/speed throttled boat as everyone else.

Am I mistaken in my thinking?

TIA

In what world?

Yes, TIA, like most of us here in Zimbabwe, was mistaken. The reality is that if Econet and Liquid are hit with an order to shut down the internet, so would Starlink.

We know that technically, Starlink does not need to have a physical presence in all countries to provide service. So, technically, they could be safe from some fellas in black boots carrying batons knocking on their doors.

So, they might be in a better position to defy the government’s order. In an ideal world, that’s what would happen.

In the real world, though, Starlink is bound by some rules, not even mentioning that it doesn’t make business sense to defy such orders. That government would proceed to outlaw Starlink when the dust settles, and other governments would follow suit. Who wants a rogue internet service provider in their country?

Then, organizations like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which state that satellite operators must comply with the national laws and regulations of the countries where they provide services, would be on Starlink’s case. This could jeopardize Starlink’s ability to even maintain a satellite business.

So, unfortunately, Starlink has to obey the laws of the countries they operate in like everyone else. That includes orders to shut down the internet when a valid directive is given.

Starlink indeed does not have a physical presence in Kenya (what they call a PoP). So Starlink actually allowed for the throttling and blocking of internet access in Kenya. I don’t think, without agreeing to do this, Starlink would have been allowed to operate.

So, yeah, Starlink will not save you from silly governments. That’s a fight you will have to fight on your own.

Also read:

The post The internet mysteriously went down during Kenyan protests, did Starlink provide refuge? appeared first on Techzim.

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