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Ethiopia “pioneers” cybercensorship in sub-Saharan Africa

Researchers who study internet filtering and censorship have focused much of their attention on countries in Asia and the Middle East. A quick glance at the “case studies” page of the Open Net Initiative (operated, in part, by the Berkman Center, my employer) lists studies from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Bahrain, UAE, Iran, Yemen, Singapore, and China.

For the most part, sub-Saharan African nations haven’t focused their resources on filtering internet content. Ethiopia, however, appears to be pioneering a change for the worse. Several bloggers in Ethiopia have reported that all Blogspot blogs have been blocked within Ethiopia for the past few days. Many Ethiopian bloggers – both inside the country and in the diaspora – use Blogspot/Blogger to host their blogs – as a result, this block prevents Ethiopians from accessing several sites highly critical of the government, like Weichegud, Ethiopundit and Seminawork. I’ve corresponded with friends in Ethiopia who confirm this block – Blogger.com itself is reachable, but any site with “.blogspot.com” in its URL appears to be blocked by ETC, the national telephone operator.

Seminawork offers some additional information, which I’ve not been able to confirm:

In addition, the government has blocked Ethiopian Review, cyber ethiopia, quatero and Free our leaders websites. My sources told me this is done by tel. with the advise and help of the chinese.

The author advises Ethiopian readers to use CGI-based proxies, like Anonymizer, to access these sites. If Ethiopia is determined to prevent access to these sites, we’ll likely see common anonymizers blocked soon. For any readers in Ethiopia finding this post, I have two recommendations:

– If you are simply interested in accessing sites like Ethiopundit and aren’t especially concerned if a network operator somewhere else in the world can determine your identity and location, it’s very simple to start using anonymizing proxies through your browser. Pick a proxy from a list of public proxies, like Samair.ru, modify your browser setting so your browser uses one of the IP addresses provided on the page as your web proxy, and you should be able to access whatever content you like.

– If you’re very concerned about protecting your identity, use Tor, a slower but much more secure anonymization system. For maximum security, enable Tor and disable Java within your browser.

Our friends in Pakistan continue to struggle with a blanket block of blogspot blogs. The circumstances, however, are slightly different. The Pakistan block appears to be in response to a government ruling prohibiting citizens from accessing copies of the infamous Danish cartoons satirizing/insulting the Prophet Muhammed – while the decision to block all blogspot blogs is a clear case of “overblocking”, it’s possible to trace the block to compliance with laws on the books and a judicial decision. (This does not mean that, in any way, I support Pakistan’s decision to block Blogspot, or any websites.)

The Zenawi government, on the other hand, does not seem to have publicly acknowledged the block. This is hardly a surprise – the government is currently attempting to prosecute opposition politicians and journalists on charges that range from treason to genocide. These arrests resulted from violence after elections in May 2005. Since then, correspondents from independent news agencies have been thrown out of the country, independent newspapers have been closed down, and anti-government bloggers have reported harrasment and threats. I think it’s unlikely that we’ll get an explanation of the block from the Zenawi government that goes any farther than a vague assurance that Blogspot needed to be blocked to “prevent genocide”.

There’s an odd sense in which the blocking of websites in Ethiopia is a hopeful sign – they’re being blocked precisely because there’s independent political voices making themselves heard through this medium and because readers in Ethiopia are listening to these voices. The government’s desire to block blogs is an implicit endorsement of their political power – censorship is the sincerest form of flattery. Let’s hope that this is a brief, dark moment during a very dark year in Ethiopian politics, not a long-term trend.

13 thoughts on “Ethiopia “pioneers” cybercensorship in sub-Saharan Africa”

  1. Since I cannot access the dashboard to create and post a new entry I’ll hijack this forum for a bit (sorry Global Voices).

    While we are getting increasingly worried about the freedom of the web and the muffling of the few free public fora in Ethiopia the oppression is mounting. Since the bombings on Friday the 12th of May the presence of military in various types and colours of uniform has been stepped up. Armed soldiers, who had been walking around with their rifles casually slung around their torsos are now seen with their itchy fingers on the trigger, especially in the “poorer” areas of Lideta, Abinet, Merkato etc. The “security guards” by the Customs offices in LaGare are actually stationed on the wall with their rifles pointing into the street- a busy street.
    Other news is that the highly publicised use of teachers and schools for oppression and intimidation is continuing. A teacher of foreign origin (a 2nd generation Italian according to my source) at a public school was forced to leave the country after refusing to disclose the name of “troublemakers”- students who are known for political awareness raising and agitation. He was actually lucky… His family here though are still facing uncertainty.

    Returning to the freedom of blogs- we are told that we can use Secure Tunnel and similar sites to access blocked blogs, but how can we post? And, more importantly- is it still safe to post? Will Blogspot collaborate with the government like Yahoo did with the Chinese government?
    There is a need for some detailed advice as to what is a secure way to post on the blogs and also write safe e-mails using means that a cranky, overworked and inefficient Ethiopian Telecom Server can quickly handle.

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