In January 2021, authorities ordered a total shutdown of the Internet in Uganda during the general elections. After announcing that access to social media platforms would be restricted, a full shutdown was implemented at 7pm on the evening before election day, cutting access for over 45 million citizens.
The country experienced a widespread Internet blackout that lasted four days, starting on 13 January and ending in the morning of 18 January 2021. Domestic Internet traffic in the country fell by 95 percent as a result of the government’s orders. And, as Ugandans headed to the polls, they were unable to access information, communicate with loved ones, or simply go about their daily business. The shutdown follows months of disruption to the flow of information and crackdowns on the media. CPJ reported that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni had announced that the government was enforcing a social media shutdown after Facebook closed several government-linked accounts for allegedly being part of an effort to manipulate the election debate.
This is not the first time Uganda had restricted access during elections: MTN Uganda reported a similar order in 2016, when access to social media was cut during the elections and the presidential inauguration.
Internet shutdowns during elections impact the ability of citizens to get accurate information from trusted sources when they need it the most and can hinder their ability to exercise their civic duties.
In the days leading up to the election, access to Google Play Store, major social media platforms and circumvention tools was blocked (even when the OTT (Over the Top) tax, commonly referred to as the “Social Media Tax”, was paid.
The following chart aggregates OONI measurement coverage from Uganda in January 2021, illustrating the blocking of the Google Play Store (play.google.com) and many social media websites (such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram).
Chart: Blocking of Google Play Store and social media websites in Uganda in January 2021 (source: OONI MAT).
From the above chart, we can see that the testing of Google Play Store and social media websites (excluding youtube.com) started to present anomalies in the days leading up to the election, while we observe a complete absence of OONI measurements during the days of the reported Internet outage (between the evening of 13th January to the morning of 18th January 2021).
Even though Internet connectivity in Uganda was restored on 18th January 2021, access to social media remained blocked. Notably, Ugandan ISPs only appear to have started blocking access to YouTube on 18th January 2021 (as illustrated in the above chart), even though the platform was not included on the OTT list of taxed platforms.
In addition to the blocking of social media websites, OONI data shows the blocking of instant messaging apps as well. Starting from 12th January 2021, OONI data collected from Uganda on the testing of WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Telegram apps presented signs of blocking on several networks, as illustrated through the chart below.
The above chart aggregates OONI measurement coverage from the testing of the WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Telegram apps on several networks in Uganda in January 2021. We can see that several ISPs started blocking the apps leading up to the election, and resumed the block after the internet outage (from 18th January 2021 onwards). This pattern is consistent with what is observed for the blocking of social media websites, discussed previously. During this period, OONI data shows that access to certain circumvention tool websites (such as protonvpn.com) appears to have been blocked as well, though both Tor and Psiphon appear to have worked throughout the election period.
Learn more through OONI’s research report.
Oracle Internet Intelligence and IODA
As of 13 January 2021, data available from Oracle’s Internet Intelligence and IODA show a drop in the visibility of IP prefixes through BGP in Uganda by 15-25% between 13:30 and 16:00UTC, followed by larger drop reaching to 75% by 20:00UTC until 18 January 2021 8:00UTC when traffic started to get back to normal indicating end of the shutdown. The previous directive on blocking social media services is still effective.
Data from Uganda Internet Exchange Point showing huge drop in traffic, from an average of 5Gbits to a mere average of 280Mbits
Google Transparency Report
Update: After several tests, we confirm that internet restoration in #Uganda is just partial. Most of the major social media websites & apps are inaccessible.
— UnwantedWitness (@UnwantedWitness) January 18, 2021