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By Jentrix Wanyama

Elections are an area of great interest and concern in equal measure across many parts of the world. The proliferation of the internet and other modern communication technologies has added intrigue to an already-contentious process. While elections are meant to facilitate democracy, their utility is heavily reliant on how they are conducted and whether democratic principles are observed in the process. Adverse use of communication technologies can have a negative impact on this important democratic practice.

The Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law (CIPIT) set out to analyse information controls in Kenya and Zimbabwe following their respective general elections in 2017 and 2018. The aim of this research was to contribute evidence to the conversation on the relationship between the Internet, human rights and the wider democratic processes.

The study developed a working definition for information controls as follows:

A wilful disconnection of access to the Internet or reduction in quality of connectivity or other form of control by an actor targeting a specific population within a geographical area that affects their ability to access, share information or otherwise participate in the electoral process online during an electioneering period.

The working definition was intentionally broad. This allowed for a study of a range of information controls, which can be generally classified as ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ methods. The traditional methods of information controls include internet shutdowns and censorship, while modern methods feature fake news and social media taxes.

The research was of an inter-disciplinary nature, looking into the legal/policy environment concerning information controls, and their technical nature as well. Technical measurements of internet shutdowns were achieved in partnership with the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI). With this, several tests were employed to determine various variables in the chosen jurisdictions over the electioneering period such as: whether certain websites and instant messaging apps were blocked, whether there were any censorship technologies in the network, and, whether the speed and performance of the networks were interfered with.

The study also sought to delineate the legal and regulatory framework concerning information controls in Kenya and Zimbabwe. This was important for purposes of identifying the legal measures that affected citizens can turn to. A crucial aspect that was investigated in both jurisdictions was the efficiency of available agencies and whether citizens were able to have their grievances resolved in a satisfactory manner.

The findings revealed an evolving information landscape with governments increasingly shying away from disrupting the internet for fear of anticipated political and economic losses. Instead, election manipulation targeted controlling the online narrative as opposed to reducing access. Further, there is a rise in private entities playing a part in information controls, such as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) blocking websites as per international standards, and so   little reported incidences of government-sanctioned information controls during elections. 

The findings of the research have been shared in various media outlets, conferences and workshops worldwide, and can now be found on our website. CIPIT looks forward to advance this research as democracies worldwide continually grapple with the information age.