Algeria blocks internet to prevent students cheating during exams

Algeria blocks internet during exams

As solutions go, it is certainly radical: in order to thwart a mass epidemic of cheating by students taking their school leaving exams, Algeria shut down the internet for up to three hours a day this week – for everyone.

“It’s beyond ridiculous,” said Lyès Rekkeb, 28, who works for a web design agency. “Every kind of connection is affected – fixed, mobile, wifi, 3G … No one who uses the internet – travel agents, startups, transport firms, even some banks – can work.”

The public telephone operator Algérie Telecom said it cut internet services “in compliance with instructions from the government … to ensure high school diploma tests run smoothly” after a joint decision by the telecommunications and education ministers.

It published a timetable of the shutdown schedule: three one-hour blackouts, coinciding with the first hour of each baccalaureate exam, on Wednesday, and two each on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

“I have no idea why they need to be so aggressive,” said Rekkeb. “For me and lots of people like me, it’s a huge inconvenience. I lose half a day’s work. Why couldn’t they just close down the mobile internet? There must be other solutions.”

Unfortunately, it seems other solutions do not work. “We have to do this – it’s a case of force majeure,” the education minister, Nouria Benghabrit, told El Watan newspaper. “We realise a blackout is a big step. But we can’t just do nothing.”

Cheating among the more than 700,000 students who take Algeria’s bac was so widespread in 2016 that the education ministry declared several exams void and ordered more than 500,000 resits using new question papers.

To the delight of large numbers of latecomers, questions and answers had begun appearing on social media before or just after the start of each exam. Thirty-one people were arrested, including several education ministry employees.

After this debacle, in 2017 the ministry installed mobile phone jammers in Algeria’s 2,100 exam centres and blocked access to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Students who arrived late were also banned from taking their exam and instead required to attend a specially organised alternative test at a later date.

But this was not 100% effective, Benghabrit said, so this year a full web blackout was decreed as part of a draconian series of measures, including fitting exam centres with metal detectors and requiring teachers and invigilators to surrender their phones and tablets. Jammers and CCTV cameras were also installed at the exam’s printers.

She said anyone caught trying to help students cheat by posting exam questions or answers online would be prosecuted. “We have taken steps to guarantee the security and therefore the credibility of our national exams,” Benghabrit said. “I call for reaction, denunciation, and a firm stance by all.”

Private internet service providers were forced to observe the blackout, Ali Kahlane, a spokesman for their association, said, adding that the operators’ contracts obliged them to comply with orders of this kind from the telecommunications minister, Imane-Houda Feraoun.

Internet experts and educationalists were scathing of the shutdown. Farid Farah, an IT specialist, told Algérie 360 that alternative technical solutions existed. “The signal strength of mobile phone base stations nearest to the exam centres could be reduced, for example,” he said. “But that would take a lot of work.”

Iheb Tekkour, another technology specialist, said Feraoun’s decision was harmful not just to the national economy but to Algeria’s image abroad.

“Whether it’s ignorance or indifference, it’s a serious matter for a country to resort to such drastic measures to address a problem that should be resolved by the education ministry,” Tekkour told Algérie 360. “Eleven-year-olds cheat at school with their smartphones. It’s the education minister’s responsibility.”

Some entrepreneurs went further. Lotfi Nezzar, the son of a former Algerian defence minister and director of an internet access company, filed a formal complaint with the post and telecommunications regulator ARPT, the news website Alg24 reported.

The blackout was a “brutal measure” that not only breached internet providers’ continuity of service guarantees but unfairly disadvantaged internet users and consumers and presented “a disastrous image of the country … synonymous with flagrant amateurism”, he said.

Algeria is not, however, the only country to take such radical steps during exam season: Syria, Iraq, Mauritania, Uzbekistan and several Indian states reportedly block access to the internet. Ethiopia shuts down social media.

Algerian internet users are not unused to poor service. According to a report by the specialist site Speedtest, the country’s average internet connection speed is the second slowest out of 135 regions surveyed, faster only than that of Venezuela.

Published by ” The Guardian “

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