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02/25/2013

Zambia to launch Internet crackdown with China's help

Until now, China’s growing influence in Africa has been mainly economic.

Not any longer though.

Computerworld reports that Zambian President Michael Sata has reached out to the Chinese government to obtain its deep packet inspection technology, a powerful tool that will help the Zambian government to track down and crack down on the opposition.

The new technology would allow it, “to eavesdrop, mine data, censor and intercept communications,” the website says.

The revelation could not come at a worse time for China. It is already under intense scrutiny following allegations in the New York Times about a major cyber spy ring operating out of Shanghai.

Now the new allegations suggest that China is ready to help foreign governments suppress free speech in their home countries.

“Deep packet inspection technology (DPI) allows monitoring of traffic from a specific IP address and enables the ability to spy on email as it is being typed out by the user,” Computerworld says.

Word of the government’s plans, apparently now in testing, sent a chill among Zambia’s civil society and opposition groups.

Neither the Zambian government nor the Chinese embassy in Lusaka have commented.

But Zambian President Sata’s disdain for critics is well known. Last fall he directed his new Attorney General to put all of Zambia’s independent media, including online sites, under the microscope to determine whether they were legal.

“I am not asking for a witch hunt,” the president said, “but you, as Attorney General, let us enforce the laws of this country, because all these Internets (sic) are all orchestrated by the (opposition) UPND,” the Lusaka Times reported.

On schedule, the government announced last month that it had drafted a law that will enable it to shutdown online websites – including, presumably, Zambian Watchdog, the online site that broke the story about government plans to crack down on Internet dissent.

Cracking down on the Watchdog, however, could prove difficult: it is hosted outside of the country.

Inside the country though, opposition groups are wary.

“The introduction of communications monitoring would clearly undermine civil liberties,” Zambian opposition figure Elias Chipimo said.

Bill Schiller has held bureau postings for the Toronto Star in Johannesburg, Berlin, London and Beijing. He is a NNA and Amnesty International Award winner, and a Harvard Nieman Fellow from the class of '06. Follow him on Twitter @wschiller

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