There are reports and rumours doing rounds that the intenert might be shut down tomorrow (31 July). There is no way to verify these rumours but the Zimbabwean government has “illegally” shut down the internet in the past. Early last year during the so-called fuel protest last year, the government started by blocking access to WhatsApp and when enough people started using VPN they ended up shutting down the internet completely.

Mnangagwa has reportedly instructed state security minister Ncube to put in place plans to shut down the internet on Friday, the second time this would be done in two years after a similar blackout during protests sparked by fuel price increases in January last year.

ZimLive on the issue

What you need to know about internet shutdowns

The last time the government shutdown the internet they did it in two ways:

  • Ordered ISPs to block certain IP addresses belonging to various social media platforms including WhatsApp
  • Completely and physically shutdown the internet, here ISPs were ordered to shutdown essential infrastructure including routers

Can I use a VPN to access the internet?

If the government merely blocks some IP addresses or services, VPNs can allow you to still access these services. However, using a technique called Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) ISPs might suss out that you are using a VPN and block your connection. As far as we know only Liquid Telecoms has DPI enabled. The bad news is that most of the internet in Zimbabwe is provided by Liquid Telecoms including Econet, Telecel and even NetOne.Several VPN providers used various techniques to mask their traffic but these often require you to pay for the privilege.

On the other hand if the government uses the second method to shutdown the internet then there is little you can do about it. VPN will not work in this case. VPN needs a working internet connection that allows you to connect to the VPN provider’s servers. Your traffic to the internet is then routed through these servers. If there is not internet connectivity you cannot use VPN.

VSAT not affected

Those who access internet through VSAT are probably not going to be affected by the shutdown. Here in Zimbabwe we have Dandemutande as one of the providers. The thing with VSAT is that usually access is controlled from outside Zimbabwe and local ISPs don’t have access to that switch. Attempting to shutdown the entire connections will likely be illegal in that foreign country and might require a court order from that country’s courts. The government is unlikely to go through these motions as that would expose their hand and would likely take too much time. In any case not many people use VSAT anyway so why bother?

Will the shutdown be legal?

We are hardly lawyers but the last shutdowns were deemed illegal by the High Court. In the grand scheme of themes it will not matter. The government will find a new legal strategy to get the internet shutdown the internet anyway if they so desire. By the time courts intervene the shutdown will have served its purpose. To be fair it’s not only the Zimbabwean government that does this. Even Western governments do this i.e. find a dubious legal strategy to achieve something and fulfil an interim goal before the courts intervene.

Are there any free VPNs I can use?

Yes, there are some free VPNs out there that you can use. You are advised to download one now:

  1. Psiphon
  2. Betternet
  3. Spotflux
  4. ProtonVPN
  5. HotSpot Shield
  6. Droid VPN

One thing to note is that it costs money to run a good VPN service. If you want the good stuff you will have to pay a few dollars. If you don’t the VPN is likely to find a way to monetise their operations including violating your privacy although this is not going to be much of a big deal to Zimbabweans.

Why is Telegram special?

Telegram is a platform not very different from WhatsApp. During the last shutdown, people hopped to the platform before the government completely cut off the cord. Telegram is notoriously hard (but not impossible to block). This is due to them using a technique called domain fronting. This allows for example Telegram to use Cloudflare’s servers to offer it’s services. Those doing the blocking will have to block these servers as well. Blocking Cloudflare for example will break most websites including this one, the Herald and a lot of other services.

Telegram will only work while there is an internet connection. If the government does what it did last year in the end even Telegram will not work because they physically switched off the internet.