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Ethiopia to build local rival to Facebook, other platforms

AFRICA
By Reuters | August 25th 2021
3D-printed Facebook and Twitter logos are seen in this picture illustration made in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina on January 26, 2016. [Reuters]

Ethiopia has begun developing its own social media platform to rival Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, though it does not plan to block the global services, the state communications security agency said on Monday.

Ethiopia has been engulfed since last year in an armed conflict pitting the federal government against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls the Tigray region in the country's north.

Supporters of both sides have waged a parallel war of words on social media.

The government wants its local platform to "replace" Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and Zoom, the director-general of the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), Shumete Gizaw, said.

Shumete accused Facebook of deleting posts and user accounts which he said were "disseminating the true reality about Ethiopia".

International human rights groups have criticized the Ethiopian government for unexplained shutdowns to social media services including Facebook and WhatsApp in the past year. The government has not commented on those shutdowns.

Facebook's Africa spokesperson, Kezia Anim-Addo, declined to comment on Ethiopia's plans and did not respond immediately to a query about Shumete's accusations.

3D printed Facebook and Twitter logos are placed on a computer motherboard in this illustration taken January 21, 2021. [Reuters]

Ethiopia, a country of about 115 million, has about 6 million Facebook users according to Statista.

But in June, days before national elections, Facebook said it had removed a network of fake accounts in Ethiopia targeting domestic users which it linked to individuals associated with INSA, which is responsible for monitoring telecommunications and the internet. 

Twitter declined to comment. Zoom did not immediately reply to a comment request.

Shumete declined to specify a timeline, budget and other details, but told Reuters: "The rationale behind developing technology with local capacity is clear ... Why do you think China is using WeChat?"

He said Ethiopia had the local expertise to develop the platforms and would not hire outsiders to help.

Social messaging app WeChat is owned by China-headquartered Tencent Holdings, is widely used in the country, and is considered to be a strong tool by Chinese authorities for monitoring its population.

Shumete also referred Reuters to comments he made on Friday to a local language media outlet in which he accused Facebook of blocking users who were "preaching national unity and peace".

He also told Al-Ain Amharic that authorities were working on the platform to replace Facebook and Twitter, while a trial has already been completed of a platform to replace WhatsApp and Zoom and that platform will soon be operational.

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