Internet Shutdowns in Africa| State-Ordered Internet Shutdowns and Digital Authoritarianism in Zimbabwe
This study critically reflects on why and how private telecommunications operators in a militarized authoritarian state comply with government orders to shut down the Internet. It argues that state-ordered Internet shutdowns must be conceptualized as a form of digital authoritarianism. It demonstrates that between 2016 and 2019, the government in Zimbabwe added state-ordered Internet shutdowns to its ever-expanding authoritarian toolkit, thereby negatively impacting the financial sustainability of telecommunications operators. Deploying the critical political economy approach and the metaphor of lawfare, the study demonstrates that the responses of private telecommunications operators to government orders must be understood within the broader context of sociopolitical and economic factors. Although private companies such as Econet Wireless Zimbabwe and Liquid Telecom control a huge chunk of the telecommunications infrastructure, the government often deploys political, regulatory, and lawfare strategies to force through state-ordered Internet shutdowns. The study argues that private telecommunications operators comply with government partly to abide by their licensing obligations, for fear of political harassment and victimization and threats of arbitrary imprisonment.