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Sad start to the new year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

by Etienne Labaume, Martin J Levy.

The calendar has barely flipped to 2019 and already we’re seeing Internet disruptions.

Today, Cloudflare can quantitatively confirm that Internet access has been shut down in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, information already reported by many press organisations. This shutdown occurred as the presidential election was taking place on December the 30th, and continues as the results are published.

Sadly, this act is far from unprecedented. We have published many posts about events like this in the past, including a different post about roughly three days of Internet disruption in the Democratic Republic of the Congo less than a year ago. A painfully familiar shape can be seen on our network monitoring platform, showing that the traffic in the country is barely reaching a quarter of its typical level:

Note that the graph is based on UTC and Democratic Republic of the Congo’s capital Kinshasa has the timezone of GMT+1.

The drop in bandwidth started just before midday on 31 December 2018 (around 10:30 UTC, 11:30 local time in Kinshasa). This can be clearly seen if we overlay each 24 hour day over each other:

The red line is 31 December, the gray lines the previous eight days. Looking at today’s overlay bandwidth graph, we can confirm this has continued and is an abnormal behaviour.

Other actors on the Internet have also been reporting similar figures. We hope that we can soon inform our readers the country is normally connected to the Internet again.

While 85 million people live in the country, very few people have internet access (6.21% according to Wikipedia’s List of countries by number of Internet users page). The country is also very large (2,344,858 square kms or 905,355 sq miles) and the 11th largest country in the world - around a quarter the landmass of the USA and nearly twice as big as South Africa. These facts play together and because of limited fiber deployment within the country; there are many places that still use very limited and expensive satellite Internet access. We can see in our bandwidth kgraphs that traffic to these satellite connected locations was not affected by this shutdown:

Note that the bandwidth levels are very low and represent a very small percentage of the overall traffic into Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Comparing that graph to the one from the largest mobile provider in the country; we clearly see the distinct cutoff.

Repeated across the world

15 months ago we wrote about an outage in Togo, were we noted that this adds Togo to the list of countries like Syria (twice), Iraq, Turkey, Libya, Tunisia, etc that have restricted or revoked Internet access. We have also written about unrest in Gabon (in 2016) and The Gambia (also in 2016). In Gambia’s case, the incumbent president lost the election! In fact we wrote “Rather than clamping down on the opposition by blocking the access to the Internet, it is quite possible that the blackout in Gambia may have infuriated voters and increased the vote against the president.”. Let’s see what happens in Democratic Republic of the Congo.

We'll update this blog once we see changes to these traffic levels. The Congolese government says they will restore internet access after election results are published on January 6th. That’s four days from now.

Cloudflare’s Project Galileo and Athenian Project

At Cloudflare, we’ll continue to do our part to try to ensure that vulnerable voices have access to the Internet. Cloudflare’s Project Galileo and Athenian Project help protect at risk websites -- such as those run by human rights organizations, journalists, and government entities reporting election results -- from being knocked offline by cyber attack.

We also support the principles for a Contract for the Web, which urge governments to commit to keeping all of the Internet available, all of the time, and Access Now’s #KeepitOn campaign. We can only hope that these efforts will yield more positive results in 2019.

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