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Holiday in Harare: part 4 – Zimbabwe’s Internet under threat

They turned off the Internet shortly after I left Harare.

I don’t think the two events were connected.

And they didn’t really turn the net off, despite alarming reports to the contrary. Like many reports about Zimbabwe, the truth is a bit more complex than the headlines.

There are at least a dozen ISPs in Zimbabwe. They all purchase access from three gateways – connections to the international Internet. The largest of these gateways is run by Tel-One, the country’s monopoly provider of line-based phone service. They lease a large satellite circuit (17Mbps) from Intelsat, which provides satellite data and voice services to many African nations. Tel-One owes a lot of money to Intelsat – about $700,000 USD – which must be paid in hard currency, which is in short supply in Zimbabwe. Tel-One has requested this sum from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, but the money hasn’t been authorized of yet.

So Intelsat is radically throttling Zimbabwe’s access to their satellites. This doesn’t mean, however, that Zimbabwe is entirely cut off. I’ve been receiving email from friends in Zimbabwe since I returned. But it does mean that access through the remaining two gateways is quite slow and that web use within the country is likely to be pretty painful.

According to the website of ZISPA – the Zimbabwe Internet Service Providers Association – this situation has been going on since late August, when Intelsat disconnected the circuit for non-payment. This means that my Zimbabwe internet experience was the “disconnected” experience that’s being widely reported. And actually, the connectivity I experienced in the country wasn’t that bad. I was able to browse sites, use GMail and GTalk. I didn’t test Skype, as I was afraid of using all the available bandwidth in my hotel or the office where I borrowed a connection from friends, but did test Tor, and was able to load pages without too much delay. Upload speeds were terrible, but download wasn’t too awful. I’d expected worse.

Specifically, I expected to see some evidence of site blocking taking place on the Zimbabwean internet. Given the strident anti-government tone of some Zimbabwe-focused sites and the fact that blocking is very possible (with only three gateways to control, you only need to change configuration on three routers), I expected to see some sites being blocked. But I was able to access sites like NewZimbabwe.com, Human Rights Watch and Tor… and they weren’t any slower than other sites I was attempting to reach.

While I wouldn’t be surprised to see Internet filtering take root in Zimbabwe, the odd thing is that the government may not need to filter the ‘net – threatening to may be sufficient.

There’s a bill pending in Zimbabwe’s parliament – the Interception of Communications Bill – which would establish a government center for the interception of communications: email, web page downloads, instant messaging, financial transactions, as well as postal mail and courier services. The Chief of the Defence Intelligence, the Director-General of the President’s department on national security, the Commissioner of the Zimbabwe Republic Police and the Commissioner-General of the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority would be able to apply to the Minister of Transport and Communications to intercept communications – requests will be granted if the minister has reason to believe “a serious offence has been or is being or will probably be committed or that there is threat to safety or national security of the country.”

To comply with the bill, Internet Service Providers would – at their own cost – have to install hardware and software to allow such communication interception to take place. Because of the financial burden this would put on providers – and because they’re concerned about the loss of privacy of Internet users – ZISPA is challenging the bill and has written a detailed response to the bill.

Jim Holland, head of ISP MangoNet and board member of ZISPA, met with the committee drafting the legislation and with Minister of Transport and Communications Christopher Mushohwe. He told me that he emphasized the fact that Ministers and MPs would be subject to the same type of surveillance, reminding them that most had certain conversations they’d like kept private, either concerning business transactions, or concerning their “small houses”, a term for mistresses. He argued that the legislation would be cripplingly expensive for ISPs, and ultimately would be ineffective, as the legislation doesn’t address encryption. (The new agency could always seize a communique, then arrest the recipient, holding her until she revealed her key. But this is unlikely to be useful in the case of an encrypted webpage download – most of us don’t memorize the SSL session keys issued when we buy a book on Amazon, for instance.) Finally, he pointed out that two other pieces of legislation that had tried to intercept communications had been declared unconstitutional. And Jim felt like the panel and the Minister had been somewhat responsive – there’s likely to be provisions for judicial oversight added to the bill.

But the mere introduction of the bill is already having an effect on Zimbabwean internet usage. Jim tells me that users are emailing him and asking “Is my email being monitored?” Specifically, users are worried about receiving information that could get them into trouble: news stories critical of the government and political jokes. They’re unsubscribing from mailing lists that provide Zimbabwean news from foreign sources, some of which might be considered illegal under Zimbabwe’s strict media laws.

There’s a widespread belief that communications monitoring is already taking place, and that the Chinese are assisting the Zimbabwean government to monitor communications. Because the Chinese are widely believed to have advanced surveillance technologies, the assumption is that the government probably is already reading everyone’s mail and recording everyone’s browsing habits. I spent a lot of my time in Zimbabwe talking to activists about what groups like the Open Net Initiative and Human Rights Watch had learned about censorship in China – what was and wasn’t possible. I also did dozens of informal trainings on ways to use https-protected webmail interfaces to prevent email from being intercepted… if any actual interception is taking place.

I find it hard to believe that a government which can’t pay its bandwidth bill is systematically monitoring the internet communications of half a million people. But threatening to monitor those communications creates a panopticon effect – by telling people they’re under observation, many (most?) will behave as if the government’s watching. And in a country where transgression can mean indefinite detention and abuse while in custody, it’s hard to blame people for wanting no remain firmly on the right side of authority.

A fascinating detail about Jim Holland’s project, MangoNet – it’s primarily a FidoNet service. FidoNet, as some of the greybeards amongst us remember, is a network designed to enable communication between different Bulletin Board systems, allowing both one to one communication and Usenet-like discussion groups. Gateways allow routing of mail from FidoNet to traditional TCP/IP mail services.

FidoNet continues to be popular in some corners of the developing world because it runs on very old systems, including DOS machines, using the Frontdoor APX client. 98% of Jim’s clients see the internet through Ifmail, a popular FidoNet/Internet gateway… and they pay an affordable price – about $0.20 USD a month – for the service. Needless to say, the ISP is a labor of love for Jim, not a profit-making entity. But for a country where half a million people are accessing the Internet through overloaded, undercapitalized circuits, FidoNet is very much “appropriate technology”.

This post is part of the Holiday in Harare series.

7 thoughts on “Holiday in Harare: part 4 – Zimbabwe’s Internet under threat”

  1. Pingback: robhyndman.com » Blog Archive » Lawful Access … in Zimbabwe

  2. Pingback: Graegert.com » Internet in Zimbabwe: Under Threat

  3. Pingback: newsBreaks.net » Problems with Zimbabwe’s Internet

  4. Zim’s troubles are bought and paid for a long time ago. They deserve every crap thing that happens to them and will happen to them.

    A few years after Mandela dies, SA will be like this too. We WILL see a big Live Aid show to feed the starving SA’s featuring all the entertainers who busted their ass to make it happen.

    The anti-apartheid movement has more blood on its hands than any honest soldier.

  5. The bill has been passed but nothing has been effected as yet. The government has no money for such a project. it is just an ambitious exercise. The Act is menat to be a crackdown on the opposition and the civic society groups. i dont know what is going to happen with these Mbeki talks underway

  6. I wonder when African countries enjoy freedom of exploring the word at least through the internet. Its really embarrassing to see how the progress of internet and mobile service in the content. I’m a victim myself. My country’s government control the telecommunication sector and its doing next to nothing to expand the service.

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