High-tech censorship on the rise in East Africa

Ethiopia has always been a country at the cutting edge of Internet censorship in Africa. In the wake of violence after the 2005 elections, when other states were only beginning to recognize the potential for online reporters to bypass traditional pressures, Meles Zenawi’s regime was already blocking major news sites and blog hosts such as blogspot.com. Some sites and Web addresses have been blocked for their reporting ever since, including exiled media like Addis Neger Online and Awramba Times.

This year, the strictures tightened again, with what many observers believe was the rollout of a far more pervasive and sophisticated blocking system. Starting in April, additional bloggers and reporters noted that their sites were being filtered, including De Birhan, a news and analysis blog that was blocked on April 21, when a large number of sites were inaccessible for a few days.

According to informal surveys taken by one exiled Ethiopian journalist, the sites temporarily blocked have been joined by a growing list of smaller exile blogs and news services, including individual Facebook pages like “We Are All Eskinder Nega.” Then, in mid-May, the Tor project reported that Ethiopia had successfully begun blocking its free anonymizing and anti-censorship services. Given that Tor encrypts, and to a certain level, disguises its traffic as normal secure Web traffic, the implication is that Ethiopia has been rolling out censorship systems that can detect specific Internet protocols and block them. (Tor’s traffic in Ethiopia is still not back to pre-May levels).

All of this spells growing confidence in the Meles regime that it can freely block larger numbers of sites, at more specific addresses — for instance, blocking single Facebook groups without having to remove the whole of Facebook — as well as detect and target certain types of Internet use. The introduction of legislation that would criminalize the offering of voice-over-Internet protocol (VOIP) and Skype-like services demonstrates how the administration plans to use these new capabilities. Previously, Ethiopia blocked foreign VOIP services on an individual basis, Elizabeth Blunt, the BBC’s former Ethiopia correspondent, told the BBC, but new regulations, combined with new technology, would allow the government to place blanket prohibitions on alternatives to state-controlled telephone calls.

There are still some forms of communication that the Ethiopian regime seems reticent to block, or incapable of restricting. Individual Facebook pages may be censored, but if Facebook users in Ethiopia turn on Facebook’s SSL encryption service (see how to do so here), they can visit these pages without being blocked or detected. The Ethiopian authorities could, in theory, censor all such encrypted traffic, or fence off access to all of Facebook’s services, but have apparently chosen not to. That suggests that, for now at least, the Ethiopian government cannot afford to wall off all popular Internet services without expecting some economic or political blowback.

Tor is working on extensions to its software that would disguise it as a more-difficult-to-censor transmission. But the gap through which undetected, uncensored news gets in and out of Ethiopia is definitely narrowing.

Meanwhile, neighboring countries like Sudan, battling — with primitive censorship, detentions, and forced exile — their own citizens’ ability to record and share news, must be looking at Ethiopia’s sophisticated controls with some anticipation. Whatever tools of Internet suppression Ethiopia imports will surely be rolled out by other authoritarian governments in Africa.