TunnelBear allows users to browse the internet safely without fear of network restrictions or surveillance. We’re exploring what the often abstract concept of censorship looks and feels like for those on the ground experiencing it. Digital Society Africa is an organization focused on strengthening communities with digital security training and capacity building. They spoke to us about how they prepared for the Zambia election, and how they dealt with the social media blockages that followed.

TunnelBear: Tell us about how Digital Society Africa works to strengthen the resilience of activists?

Digital Society Africa: We seek to achieve this (strengthening resilience) using a holistic security approach through a range of activities that include: holding discussions with organizations we seek to help where we identify the threats and risks they face in their work; we then develop and implement an action plan focused on ways to mitigate and minimise the impact of these risks; we also conduct security workshops to organised groups, individuals and general citizens where we share how they can better secure their information both online and offline; and lastly, we provide technical support to small to medium civil society organisations within the Southern African region.

Was there a feeling leading up to the election in Zambia that you might experience internet disruptions?

Definitely yes, there was a strong feeling that there would be internet disruptions. Unfortunately in previous elections in Africa we have seen and learnt of the internet being disrupted during elections, a tactic which is being copied by other leaders in the continent.

How did you prepare for the election? Do you do this for all regional elections?

We have developed an “elections digital security roadmap”, which includes several steps and actions that need to happen at minimum one year before the elections. Some of the steps involved include but are not limited to conducting risk assessments for main civil society organizations that work around human rights and elections including journalists; conducting digital security training; developing secure communication strategies; implementing secure data collection platforms and setting up incident response mechanisms.

We unfortunately cannot do this with all regional elections because of funding requirements, but we’ve started to build a local presence in countries that are far from our country of residence, so we can lead the implementation of this roadmap as we support folks remotely.

When Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp were blocked, can you explain what the feeling on the ground was like? What is it like for you?

Honestly, it was just a thing that we all expected and there was no real panic but just unfortunate confirmation of what we had anticipated. Ultimately we were sad to realize that African leaders are normalising internet disruptions during election periods.

As for me, I was just happy that we were well prepared for this. As much as it was not a great thing to happen, I was excited to see sections of the “roadmap” being implemented and was a bit nervous if the organisations and individuals we had trained would still be able to activate the discussed measures. It was comforting to see our preparation pay off.

Internet freedom is something that we are fighting for and we will keep fighting for until a time when the internet can be accessed by all, and repressive governments do not restrict its use to cover human rights abuses that happen within their countries.

Did your network mobilize when social media was blocked? How did this happen?

I would not say it was mobilization but rather just a check-in and confirmation. Note that all our network members had the OONI probe running and TunnelBear or Psiphon or NordVPN installed. I was just responsible for calling each team lead to confirm blockage and asking if they had noticed it and had activated VPN use.

How would you describe the idea of internet freedom to those who’ve always felt like they have it?

It might be obvious to everyone that being on the internet is a basic need and also a common thing that everyone should have in their homes. Unfortunately this is not the case in most developing countries as this is either too expensive or not easily available simply because of lack of infrastructure or coverage. In the cases where individuals have the internet but no internet freedom, that's when you see governments doing whatever they want.

For example, when protests happen they can just instruct ISPs to block certain platforms, usually social media platforms which ordinary citizens use on a daily basis to communicate with their family and friends. They can also throttle internet speeds and in the worst cases shut down the whole internet . These internet access restrictions can last as long as the protests are still happening, and this might mean individuals and companies cannot access the internet for days and in some cases months. This situation makes it hard and even traumatic for a lot of people who are now cut off from connecting with family and friends and the rest of the world. In this situation people then rely on other unsecure platforms like SMS or direct calls to be catching up with family, friends and colleagues which then increases their cost of communication significantly.

Internet freedom is something that we are fighting for and we will keep fighting for until a time when the internet can be accessed by all, and repressive governments do not restrict its use to cover human rights abuses that happen within their countries.

Is there anything you’d like to see the internet freedom community and digital policymakers do more of?

To the internet freedom community: I believe there is great need to form better and stronger collaborations amongst the different players within the different spaces. For example those who work with the actual frontline or grassroots members and those who develop tools or platforms. Such collaborations will ensure that the best solution is created and also can enable extended resource support (human, financial or emotional). Recent situations have proven that where there is relationship and collaboration, this will positively benefit not just the activist but also the general citizen.

To digital policy makers: There is a great need for simplified and more country-specific contextual examples when you discuss the importance of digital rights and policy. The sad reality is that it’s only a few individuals and organizations that actually fully understand digital rights and policies and it's simply because of the language and terms being used. Simplification and deliberate involvement of all stakeholders including general citizens will positively change the view around digital policies.

With greater collaboration between key players and wider understanding of how digital policy shapes our day-to-day life, the dream of internet freedom can more easily be reached.

Sincerely rawrs,
the TunnelBear Team

TunnelBear is a very simple virtual private network (VPN) that allows users to browse the web privately and securely. It secures browsing from hackers, ISPs, and anyone that is monitoring the network. TunnelBear believes you should have access to an open and uncensored internet, wherever you are.