Now Any Government Can Buy China’s Tools for Censoring the Internet
Beijing’s ‘autocracy as a service’ is becoming the top choice for governments that want to control the internet
In 2010, Uganda passed a law that expanded the legal justifications for intercepting citizens’ communications. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni had begun to see the internet as a real threat, and after the 2016 election and protests the following year, he turned to foreign companies like Germany’s FinFisher to monitor the devices of his opponents. When the Israeli firm NSO failed to decrypt the communications of Museveni’s U.S.-backed political rival in 2018, Chinese firm Huawei stepped in. Huawei was already the biggest communication supplier in Uganda, an unremarkable fact given that Huawei — like other Chinese companies — has been building infrastructure and relationships across Africa since 1998. Huawei’s local operatives went the extra mile to help Museveni surveil his opponent, resulting in dozens of arrests that stopped an opposition campaign from getting off the ground.
Huawei is not the only Chinese company working closely with the Ugandan government. In 2017, Ugandan media reported that the China National Electronics Import & Export Corporation (CEIEC), a firm wholly owned by the Chinese government, was selling Uganda “a comprehensive cybersecurity solution, including technical capacity to monitor and prevent social media abuse.” The Ugandan minister for trade said the country did not have the capacity to deal with cybercrime and, as national newspaper the Daily Monitor put it; “This expression of dire need rang out to the Chinese like a song.”
When struggling countries call for help managing communications technologies, China answers. The results are human rights abuses and the export of a punitive, state-centered “sovereign internet.”
What rings clear is the assiduous cultivation and responsiveness of China’s technology firms to the worries of a smaller and much poorer country struggling to deal with the internet. We don’t know how close the coordination is between Huawei’s local operatives and head office, and…