Resurgence of Internet Censorship in Ethiopia: Blocking of WhatsApp, Facebook, and African Arguments
Maria Xynou (OONI), Moses Karanja (University of Toronto), Berhan Taye (Access Now), Arturo Filastò (OONI)
Last year in June 2018, following years of pervasive internet censorship, Ethiopia
unblocked hundreds of
websites as part of political reforms
under a new government. But merely a year later, we observe a resurgence
of internet censorship in the country.
In mid-June 2019, Ethiopia
several internet blackouts and once internet access was restored, access
to WhatsApp and Telegram was blocked. These events coincided with
Ethiopia’s national high school exams and it is
internet access was restricted in an attempt to prevent exam leakage as
has happened in the past.
On 22nd June 2019, following an alleged coup attempt in the Amhara
region, access to the internet was shut down
again. Once internet access was restored, access to WhatsApp was blocked again.
This time though, we observe the blocking of Facebook
and Facebook Messenger),
instead of Telegram (which was/is
A few weeks later, we noticed the
of the African Arguments website as
well, a pan-African platform covering investigative stories.
In this report, we share OONI network measurement data on these ongoing censorship
Internet blackout following coup attempt
internet blackouts and the temporary blocking of Whatsapp and Telegram
in Ethiopia during mid-June 2019.
One day after our publication, on 22nd June 2019, factions of the
security forces of the Amhara region allegedly attempted an armed coup, during which the
regional president was assassinated. It was subsequently
that a nationwide internet blackout occurred, which can be verified by
both IODA data
and Google traffic data
The Internet Outage Detection and Analysis (IODA) project of the Center for Applied Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA) measures
internet blackouts worldwide in near real-time. Their
which is openly available, provides signals of an internet blackout in
Ethiopia between 22nd June 2019 to 27th June 2019, as illustrated via
the following chart.
Source: Internet Outage Detection and Analysis (IODA): Ethiopia
More specifically, IODA data shows that the internet outage appears to
have started at around 20:00 UTC on 22nd June 2019 and to have lasted
until around 06:00 UTC on 27th June 2019 (4 days and 8 hours estimate).
Similarly, Google traffic data,
shared below, illustrates that all traffic originating from Ethiopia
towards Google services was disrupted during the same dates.
Source: Google Transparency Reports: Traffic and disruptions to Google
Once internet access was restored in Ethiopia on 27th June 2019, access
to major social media platforms was blocked. Below we share OONI network measurement data on the
blocking of WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and facebook.com.
Blocking of WhatsApp
Following the initial internet blackouts in mid-June 2019, WhatsApp was
when internet access was restored. At the time, we
that access to WhatsApp’s registration service and web version
(web.whatsapp.com) were blocked by means of SNI filtering,
but that Ethio Telecom (the only telecom in the country) refrained from
blocking WhatsApp endpoints. OONI measurements then suggested that
on 17th June 2019.
But after the coup attempt and subsequent
(between 22nd to 27th June 2019), access to WhatsApp was blocked again
and recent OONI measurements suggest that it remains blocked.
Source: OONI measurements: Ethiopia
Once again, Ethio Telecom appears to
access to WhatsApp’s registration service and web version
(web.whatsapp.com), but not to WhatsApp endpoints. This is evident in
all OONI measurements collected between 17:53 UTC on 27th June 2019
to 14:58 UTC on 13th August 2019,
as illustrated in the graph above. A measurement collected in the
morning of 27th June 2019 at 08:56 UTC showed that WhatsApp was still accessible,
suggesting that Ethio Telecom blocked access to the platform sometime
between 09:00 UTC and 17:53 UTC that day.
WhatsApp appears to be blocked on both fixed-line (WiFi)
Blocking of Facebook
Previously, Ethio Telecom
blocked access to
WhatsApp and Telegram after the mid-June 2019 internet blackouts. But
after the attempted coup and the most recent internet blackout (which
ended on 27th June 2019), Ethio Telecom appears to have blocked access to Facebook,
instead of Telegram.
Recent testing of Telegram from
27th June 2019 onwards shows that the app is not blocked
in Ethiopia (though it remains unclear why Ethio Telecom chose to block
Facebook, instead of Telegram, this time around).
Similarly to the blocking of WhatsApp, OONI measurements show that
access to Facebook Messenger was blocked in Ethiopia by 18:00 UTC on 27th June 2019
(while an earlier measurement shows that the app was
in the morning of that day). All OONI measurements collected thereafter
consistently show that attempts to establish TCP connections to Facebook’s endpoints fail,
strongly suggesting that the app is blocked. Recent OONI measurements
show that access to Facebook Messenger remains blocked
in Ethiopia, and that it is blocked on both fixed-line (WiFi)
In addition to blocking access to Facebook Messenger, Ethio Telecom
appears to block access to facebook.com
as well. All OONI Web Connectivity measurements
collected from 2nd July 2019 onwards consistently
that the testing of facebook.com presents anomalies, suggesting that
access to the site is blocked in Ethiopia. Previous measurements leading
up to 16th June 2019 showed that facebook.com was
but the lack of reliable measurements in the interim until 2nd July 2019
limits our ability to determine whether the blocking of facebook.com
started along with the blocking of Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp on
27th June 2019.
Blocking of African Arguments website
Our attention was drawn to the alleged blocking of the African Arguments website in Ethiopia, a
pan-African platform covering investigative stories and contemporary
Image: Elias Meseret Taye’s
Several internet users in Ethiopia tried accessing the website to
confirm and had mixed results. They reported that the website seemed to
be accessible on fixed-line connection (in this case, WiFi), but not on
cellular mobile data. When a VPN was used, they were able to access the
website on both fixed-line and mobile networks.
A technical verification did in fact flag a form of censorship and
corroborate the reports from Ethiopian internet users.
OONI’s Web Connectivity test (designed to measure
the TCP/IP, DNS, and HTTP blocking of websites) was run in Ethiopia to
measure the potential blocking of africanarguments.org. The collected
measurements consistently present DNS anomalies
on mobile networks, strongly suggesting that Ethio Telecom blocks
africanarguments.org by means of DNS tampering. However, measurements
collected from WiFi networks show that the site was
during the same period.
The following table shows that africanarguments.org is consistently
blocked on mobile networks, but accessible on fixed-line networks
Source: OONI measurements: Ethiopia
It’s unclear when the blocking started as africanarguments.org has only
been tested in Ethiopia from 5th August 2019 onwards (which is also when
locals reported the blocking). OONI Probe
users in Ethiopia can continue to test the availability of the African Arguments website using this (OONI Run)
Ethiopia seems to be sliding back to old ways when internet censorship was a pervasive practice. After
the political changes of 2018, hundreds of websites were unblocked, but the recent
social media censorship,
and the ongoing blocking of WhatsApp
point to a dangerous path for freedom of expression, access to
information, and associated human rights in the country. In addition,
the lack of transparency and accountability as to why these websites and
apps are blocked is a cause for concern.
Network measurement data collected from Ethiopia indicate a pattern: The
lifting of complete internet blackouts is followed by the blocking of
social media and messaging applications, with WhatsApp, Telegram,
Facebook Messenger, and facebook.com being the most affected. We also
observed more censorship on mobile networks than on fixed-line (WiFi)
This study can be expanded upon through the use of OONI Probe and OONI data.