After a spike in fuel price resulted in a breakout of protest earlier this week in Zimbabwe, the government decided the most effective way to deal with the problem was to shut down the internet. The shutdown was effected on Tuesday, 15 January and it started off with just blocking access to popular social media platforms like WhatsApp but it quickly escalated to a full internet shutdown in a bid to stop the flow of information and cripple the protests against the government.
Anyone reading this, no matter your nationality, please help us get Zimbabwe back online. The people have been silenced, they have no internet access.
— Zacquilababe (@africanbutterzw) January 15, 2019
“There Was Just A Congestion Problem”
After a few hours of internet darkness, the government of Zimbabwe spoke out through the deputy minister of information, Energy Mutodi. The minister said that the government had not shut down the internet but the lack of internet connection was caused by congestion resulting from numerous people downloading videos on the ongoing protests. The Minister even went ahead to claim that Zimbabweans had probably run out of internet bundles and thus could not access the internet.
After this craziness, the internet in the country was restored but social media platforms still remained inaccessible. This left citizens turning to VPNs to access the likes of Facebook and WhatsApp. However, the government went ahead and ordered a shutdown on a number of VPNs which took the citizens back to square one.
Telegram Saves the Day
As the country is still on an internet shutdown, Zimbabweans have turned to the use of Telegram as an alternative to WhatsApp and Facebook. The government has not been able to block Telegram thanks to the platform’s structure.
See, unlike WhatsApp and other social media platforms, Telegram diverts its traffic across numerous servers to ensure that the service stays alive. This means that if one IP address is blocked, the app would simply switch to a new, available IP address and thus keep the connection going.
Secondly, Telegram uses a technique known as domain fronting, that they implemented when the service was banned in Russia. This technique essentially hosts a service on another company’s systems and effectively hides the traffic’s source, thus traffic from Telegram looked like it was coming from Google and Amazon, thus going around the block.
This implementation is what has kept Telegram alive in Zimbabwe despite the government blocking all other social media platforms. And yes, it works even without a VPN.