Why Africans are embracing VPNs

Posted on November 5, 2016 12:19 am

Yesterday I shared how Virtual Private Networks uptake in Africa is growing by the day for various reasons.Someone sent me an email asking to know why Africans are embracing use of VPNs.To address his request and those of you who could have read the article, I decided to share my views here.In recent months, there have been many reports of Africans covertly signing up for the US and European streaming services, using fake postcodes and software workarounds to fool its geo-blocking system and then pay through their debit and credit card to access English Premier League matches online.For ethical reasons, I will not share the streaming sites that are advertising themselves on the dark web claiming to offer such services.One industry researcher whom I spoke to recently, estimates that up to 500,000 Africans have subscribed to the service in this way and are watching English Premier League matches online rather than on DSTV’s Supersport channels or other licensed EPL rights channels.Geoblocking circumvention is by all accounts a common practice in African households and an industry is emerging to meet the demand for borderless streaming by millions of Africans eager to watch the English Premier League matches on the go or at their comfort rooms.Hundreds of start-up companies now offer unblocking and identity-masking services using a virtual private network, others are using DNS proxies and easy to use browser plugins. Detailed how-to guides can be found on many websites in Africa and even the mainstream media is offering the same information.For a monthly fee of USD$10, a VPN will mask your identity online by routing your traffic through its servers whose IP address is in USA, and thwart geoblocking and there you access the English Premier League matches as if you are somewhere in Uncle Sam. Consequently, VPNs are popular with a diverse range of users such as privacy advocates, political dissidents, filesharers, tourists, and now English Premier League viewers.How common is VPN use in Africa?I have been looking into this question with several researchers working in the continent and its clear that more than 15% of urban internet users are either using a VPN or a web proxy, or both, to access the internet and download files at home.

As these figures suggest, there is clearly a high degree of familiarity with privacy software among the African population. One in five people know how to use these tools.This doesn’t mean that all these people are accessing offshore streaming sites, of course. VPNs have legitimate business uses with many companies and government agencies running VPNs so that their staff can work securely off-site. Many privacy conscious people also use VPNs to keep their communications secure. But we can assume some kind of connection between this 15% figure and people’s streaming habits.Let’s put the researchers finding side by side with the figure of more than 11,000 unauthorised African Netflix subscribers that was recently mooted. In the context of the study, that figure seems very plausible in fact, we would suggest it is probably on the low side.Tracking the VPN’s evolution from an IT networking tool to a domestic entertainment accessory tells us something about how the character of digital technologies can shift as a result of their everyday uses.Until recently, VPNs were used mostly for business purposes and by tech-savvy geeks in Africa. They had little appeal to non specialists.Today, VPNs are arguably a household technology rather than an obscure networking technology. The past few years have seen VPN providers enthusiastically market their services to domestic consumers.Some VPNs specifically target the filesharing community, others promote their services on the basis of privacy protection, playing on Africans fears about cybercrime and government surveillance. Others explicitly promote themselves as geoblocking circumvention tools.It is also worth considering how people are using VPNs in other parts of the world. These practices often have little in common with how Africans use them.In many nations, VPNs are being used to evade government censorship.In February this year, millions of Ugandans used VPNs to access Twitter, Facebook when they are blocked by the government during the election period. Diasporic communities in Africa and elsewhere also use VPNs to access streaming media from home.Seen from this perspective, Africans’ streaming habits are connected to a complex array of location masking practices across the continent, used variously by price sensitive consumers in Nairobi, early adopters in Zambia, filesharers in Pretoria, privacy advocates in Uganda, tourists in Tanzania and political dissidents in Ethiopia. At the centre of all this is the humble VPN.In coming years, it will be interesting to see how the VPN’s social meaning and uses change further as more Africans find as yet unimagined applications for privacy software.

Contador Harrison