Saturday, September 23, 2023
SocietyVPNs offer a way out, but at a cost

VPNs offer a way out, but at a cost

Digital divide widens amid VPN usage surge

Internet and network blockages are nothing new in Ethiopia, with such disruptions occurring for years, often during periods of unrest or national exams to curb cheating. Under successive governments, access to the internet or certain platforms has been restricted during protests or other forms of unrest in a bid to stifle or curtail the spread of information, be it fake news or legitimate.

Ethiopians have grown accustomed to the move as a result of the countless times the internet has been shut down. The shutdown has left citizens feeling frustrated and disconnected, forcing many to turn to VPN services.

But the latest shutdown has lasted nearly five months.

The partial shutdown was implemented in early February during the unrest caused by a disagreement between the synods of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Almost five months later, the shutdown still continues, leaving many Ethiopians eagerly awaiting the return of full internet service. Access to separate applications such as Instagram, YouTube and Telegram have all been restricted as conflict spread in the country.

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While the government’s actions have forced many to turn to VPN services, the workaround has come with its own set of challenges.

Using a VPN can increase data consumption by up to 500 percent, driving up costs considerably. The increased cost of the service means that not all of the country’s citizens who are online – which, to begin with, is only about 20 percent of Ethiopians – can afford to use VPNs to stay active online.

For low-income citizens, the extra data fees associated with VPN usage can make internet access unaffordable. VPN connections are often slower, causing issues with video calls, online learning platforms, and cloud services. This has led to concerns about the impact on Ethiopia’s ambitions to become a technology hub in Africa.

A recent study published by New Media and Society in 2021 found that while VPNs provide benefits like privacy and access to censored information, they also create financial and technological barriers that disproportionately impact the globally disadvantaged. The study concluded that truly open and affordable internet access is needed to reduce the digital divide, and while VPNs can empower some, they also risk widening the divide “between those who are able to navigate and afford this workaround and those who are not.”

The researchers analyzed over 1,000 Reddit posts about VPN usage and found that cost was a major hurdle, with many lower-income users unable to afford the monthly fees. Technological barriers also emerged, as many users reported difficulty configuring and using VPNs effectively.

Abel Mekonnen, a 23-year-old social media manager, has been using a common VPN application called Psiphon to access blocked applications during the internet shutdown. Though he has grown accustomed to the lag and increased costs associated with VPN usage, he is hopeful that the internet will be restored soon so he can return to better-quality internet at a cheaper rate.

“At this point, I honestly don’t mind it as much, and I’m used to it. But I still don’t like the fact that using a VPN decreases the speed at which I can get things done. The advertisements and the fact that the app is ongoing in the background also drain my phone battery way too often and have impacted the battery life of my device too,” he explained.

The widespread use of VPNs in Ethiopia has raised concerns about the impact on telecom companies and potential investors. Companies may be hesitant to invest in a market where many potential customers have unstable internet access, and telecom companies may be reluctant to enter the market if they fear losing revenue due to internet blockages.

The impact of VPN usage on performance has not gone unnoticed. The impact on performance is a concern, with users experiencing decreased internet quality and speed. Ethiopians are eagerly awaiting the return of full internet service, hoping to put an end to the challenges associated with VPN usage. In the meantime, the debate over the use of VPNs and the need for truly open and affordable internet access continues.

As the shutdown continues, Ethiopians are reminded of the power of technology to both liberate and limit and the importance of ensuring that all citizens have access to the tools they need to thrive in the digital age.

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