Internet cut in Ethiopia amid unrest following killing of singer

Network data from the NetBlocks internet observatory confirm that internet has been cut across most of Ethiopia from just after 9 a.m. local time (6:00 a.m. UTC) on Tuesday 30 June 2020 amid protests and unrest.

Real-time metrics show that the country remained largely offline until morning Thursday 23 July 2020, with nation-scale impact that lasted 23 whole days.

Cellular networks which the majority of users rely on remained cut through most of that period. Some regional disruptions are still indicated, while social media and messaging apps remain restricted with investigations ongoing.

The blackout comes amid protests in Addis Ababa after Oromo singer and activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was shot dead on Monday night. 34-year-old Haacaaluu’s work is associated with the movement that saw the removal of Ethiopia’s previous prime minister.

The ongoing incident has nation-scale impact affecting cellular and fixed-line networks and is not attributed to any international issue, technical outage or cyber-attack. Observable connectivity hovered between 1% and 2% of ordinary levels through the shutdown’s initial hours with users also reporting difficulty getting phone calls connected. Connectivity gradually rose from 5% to 11% through the first week although ordinary users remained offline. Consistent with previous recorded government-ordered internet shutdowns, service has been restored to a small selection of subscribers during that time.

In terms of severity and duration the internet shutdown has surpassed previously documented incidents in Ethiopia, including the information blackout following last year’s assassination and alleged coup attempt in the Amhara region. Network data show that the 2019 shutdown had total impact for over 100 hours and left the country largely offline for ten days. Aside from protests, Ethiopia has also previously used internet restrictions in an apparent bid to prevent cheating in school exams.

State-owned telco Ethio Telecom operates a national monopoly, which expedites the process of deactivating national internet and telephony services providing Ethiopian authorities an effective internet “kill switch.”  A tendering process was opened up to external telecommunications industry investors last year but it remains unclear whether those arrangements can now realistically proceed, and if so whether they could deliver a more resilient internet topology in the current political climate.

Beyond impact to fundamental rights, each day the internet remains shut in Ethiopia runs up a bill in excess of $4.5 million USD in terms of economic impact to GDP according to the Cost of Shutdown Tool, which combines telecom industry and development indicators to assess the impact of internet disruptions on digital prosperity.

Ethiopia’s reactive approach to political developments often involving limitations on public expression has been subject to domestic and international criticism. Authorities allege that internet use drives ethnic unrest, citing the circulation of misinformation as grounds for the country’s information blackouts.

Politically motivated Internet shutdowns have intensified in severity and duration under the leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed despite the country’s rapid digitalization and growing reliance on cellular internet connectivity through recent years.

Background and related news:


Methodology

NetBlocks diffscans, which map the IP address space of a country in real time, show internet connectivity levels and corresponding outages. Purposeful internet outages generally have a distinct network pattern used by NetBlocks to determine and attribute the root cause of an outage, a process known as attribution which follows detection and classification stages.

A summary of data visualizations used in this report:

  • Network Connectivity (National): Internet providers and networks serving the affected region are visualized in a stacked time-series histogram to identify the start and end times of an internet shutdown event. Scales on the y-axis are adjusted to match localized maxima while minima indicate periods when networks became unreachable. The x-axis represents Universal Coordinated time (GMT+0).
    • Standard: Connectivity levels on the y-axis correspond directly to the observed number of reachable connections, as with National Connectivity charts.

NetBlocks is a civil society group working at the intersection of digital rights, cyber-security and internet governance. Independent and non-partisan, NetBlocks strives for an open and inclusive digital future for all.

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