Senegal: VPN usage reaches new levels amid protests and internet restrictions

As the February 2024 election approaches, internet shutdowns are being used to cut communications and limit dissent.

Senegal table flag on white textured wall

In response to a renewed surge of internet restrictions, residents of Senegal are flocking to Virtual Private Network (VPN) services in unprecedented numbers. Notably, Proton VPN, a private network provider, reported an astonishing surge in new sign-ups, skyrocketing by 2,800% above its usual rate, according to data collected by its VPN Observatory since July 31, 2023.

This substantial increase coincided with a day of restricted internet access, which was subsequently followed by the blocking of TikTok on August 2. An analysis by NetBlocks illustrates how much the internet has been shut down from July 31 to August 5.

After recent events, like cyberattacks by the hacker group Mysterious Team in May and internet shutdowns in June, Macky Sall’s government arrested their most avid critic, Ousmane Sonko. He was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison, charged with inappropriate conduct involving individuals below 21, making him ineligible for next year’s election.

According to the country’s communications minister, the motive behind these internet shutdown measures was to curb the proliferation of ‘hateful messages’ circulating on social media platforms. However, he did not specify what they were related to.

Why does it matter?

Senegal has, since 2000, been among Africa’s steadfast democracies and has witnessed peaceful shifts of authority between opposing factions, although competition has waned over the years. The nation boasts somewhat autonomous media and open speech, although it experiences limitations posed by defamation statutes. Additionally, it now experiences new restrictions on digital communication and internet access, despite its plans to achieve universal access to high-speed internet in the country by 2025 under the Plan National Haut Débit du Sénégal. With these challenges to democracy, Senegal appears to join a long line of nations using internet access as a tool for repression.