A Decade of Internet Freedom in Africa: Report Documents Reflections and Insights from Change Makers

CIPESA Writer |

Over the last decade, Africa’s journey to achieve internet freedom has not been without challenges. There have been significant threats to internet freedom, evidenced by the rampant state censorship through
internet shutdowns, surveillance, blocking and filtering of websites, and the widespread use of repressive laws to suppress the voices of key actors.

However, amidst all this, there is a community of actors who have dedicated efforts towards advancing digital rights in the continent with the goal of ensuring that more Africans can enjoy the full benefits of the internet.

As part of our efforts recounting the work of the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) over the years, we are pleased to share this special edition report: A Decade of Digital Rights in Africa: Reflections and Insights from 10 Change Makers, where we document reflections and insights from ten collaborators who have been instrumental in shaping Africa’s digital and Internet freedom advocacy landscape over the last ten years.

These changemakers have demonstrated change by advocating for a more free, secure, and open internet in Africa and working to ensure that no one is left behind.

Read the full report: A Decade of Digital Rights in Africa: Reflections and Insights from 10 Change Makers!

Meet the Changemakers

‘Gbenga Sesan, the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative, is an eloquent advocate for internet freedom across the continent, leading efforts to push back against repressive laws and promoting digital
inclusion while speaking truth to power. He continues to champion the transformative power of technology for social good and to drive positive change in society.

Arthur Gwagwa is a Research Scholar at Utrecht University, Netherlands, and a long-standing advocate for digital rights and justice. His work in the philanthropic sector has been instrumental in supporting various grassroots initiatives to promote internet freedom in Africa. Similarly, his pioneering research work and thought leadership continue to inspire and transform the lives of people in Africa.

Edetaen Ojo, the Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda, is a prominent advocate for advancing media rights and internet freedom. Known for his strategic vision and dedication to media freedom, he pioneered the conceptualisation and development of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and has been a key voice in shaping Internet policy-making in Africa.

Emilar Gandhi, the Head of Stakeholder Engagement and Global Strategic Policy Initiatives at Meta, built a strong foundation in civil society as an advocate for Internet freedom. She is a prominent figure in technology policy in Africa whose expertise and dedication have made her a valuable voice for inclusivity and responsible technology development in the region.

Dr. Grace Githaiga, the CEO and Convenor of Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet), has been a leading
advocate for media freedom and digital rights in Africa. Her tireless advocacy in shaping internet policy has earned her recognition for her pivotal roles in championing internet freedom, digital inclusion,
multistakeholderism, and women’s rights online.

Julie Owono, the Executive Director of Internet Sans Frontières (Internet Without Borders), is a passionate and respected digital rights advocate and thought leader in the global digital community. She is not only a champion for internet freedom in Africa but is also a symbol of hope for many communities standing at the forefront of the battle for internet freedom and connectivity in Africa.

Neema Iyer, the founder of Pollicy, is well known for her advocacy efforts in bringing feminist perspectives into data and technology policy. Her dynamic and multi-faceted approach to solving social challenges exemplifies the potential of data and technology to advance social justice and promote digital inclusion and internet freedom in Africa.

Dr. Tabani Moyo, the Regional Director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), is a distinguished
media freedom advocate and influential leader in guiding a community of changemakers in Southern Africa. He has played an extensive and formidable role in pushing back against restrictive and repressive laws, supporting journalists under threat, empowering young Africans, and shaping internet governance policies.

Temitope Ogundipe, the Founder and Executive Director of TechSocietal, has been a champion for digital rights and inclusion in Africa. She is an advocate for women’s rights online and uses her expertise to contribute to the development of youth and address digital inequalities affecting vulnerable groups across the continent.

Wafa Ben-Hassine, the Principal Responsible Technology at Omidyar Network, is a recognised human rights defender and visionary leader dedicated to promoting human rights and responsible technological
development. Her relentless advocacy and valuable contributions to defending digital rights, civil liberties, and technology policy continue to inspire many across the continent.

Join the Report Launch Webinar:

When: January 31, 2024
Time: 14:00-16:00 (Nairobi Time)
Location: Zoom (Register here)
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

Updated: Watch the report launch webinar.

Introducing the Tech Accountability Fund and a Call for Proposals

Announcement |

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) has partnered with Digital Action to support work on tech accountability in Sub-Saharan Africa in the run up to and during the “Year of Democracy” in 2024. This support will be channelled through the Tech Accountability Fund that will be administered under the auspices of the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF).  

Numerous African countries, including the Comoros, Senegal, Mauritania, Rwanda, Mozambique, Ghana, Algeria, Botswana, Chad, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Mauritius, Namibia, South Africa, South Sudan and Tunisia, are headed to the polls during 2024. Electoral processes are essential to building democracy, and given growing threats to information integrity and technology use in elections, it is crucial to conduct platform accountability around electoral processes. The Fund responds to these key concerns in the Year of Democracy and to the scant  resources to African civil society entities that are working to counter tech harms. 

In 2022, Africa had around 570 million internet users, of which 384 million (67%) were social media users. These users, most of whom are the youth, are increasingly using social media applications such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok for content creation and entertainment, business, advertising and entrepreneurship, communication and connection, education and learning, civic engagement and activism. As the users increase, reports from social media companies indicate the rise of harmful, illegal or offensive content on the platforms.

In response, social media companies have employed various measures to review, screen, and filter content to ensure it meets their community guidelines or policies and does not adversely affect the user experience on the platforms. The content moderation tools and techniques applied include keyword filtering, machine learning algorithms and human review. 

Despite these efforts, the inadequacy of the measures undertaken by social media platforms and social networking sites in moderating illegal, harmful or offensive content has increasingly been questioned. In Ethiopia for instance, social media companies have been accused of not doing enough to moderate such content, which has gone on to cause real-world harm, such as fuelling killings. Starkly, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are accused of deploying minuscule resources and measures in content moderation in Africa, relative to investments in the United States and Europe. 

Key concerns about content moderation in Africa include the limited understanding by platforms of the cultural context in the continent, the lack of cultural sensitivity, labour rights violations, bias and discrimination of algorithms, non-application of local laws, lack of transparency and accountability in content moderation, all of which have an impact on freedom of expression and civic participation.

Call for Proposals
Applications are now open for the Tech Accountability Fund as the eighth edition of the ADRF. Grant sizes will range from USD 5,000 to USD 20,000 subject to demonstrated need. Cost sharing is strongly encouraged. Funding shall be for periods between six and 12 months. 

The Fund is particularly interested in work related to but not limited to:

  • Online gender-based violence, particularly against women politicians and women journalists
  • Network disruptions
  • Content moderation
  • Microtargeting and political advertising
  • Hate speech
  • Electoral Disinformation 
  • Electoral specific harms e.g. effects on freedom of expression and citizens’ ability to make independent choices and participate in electoral processes.

The deadline for applications is February 16, 2024. Read more about the Fund Guidelines here. The application form can be accessed here

Only shortlisted applicants will be contacted directly. Feedback on unsuccessful applications will be available upon request.

Meet the Latest Grantees of the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF)

Announcement |

Round seven of the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF) awarded grants to seven organisations to implement initiatives focused on digital inclusion, women’s safety online, cyber security and digital resilience. In Tanzania, Omuka Hub is working to raise the online visibility of women politicians and push for reforms related to online violence against women in the context of the Political Parties Act and Election Act. Still on women’s safety online, building on the success of its endgbv.africa portal, South Africa based Alt Advisory is working to increase the availability of resources in the form of fact sheets on the harm, including legal and political nuances; landmark judgments and law reform processes; and support for survivors. 

Under the themes of cybercrime, data protection and privacy and hate speech, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)’s ADRF initiative aims to document (through primers and podcasts) and spark discourse around narratives related to national security, social media regulation and content moderation, and multi-stakeholder participation in Namibia’s cyber security law and policy making processes.

Towards strengthening the digital resilience of human rights defenders, activists, and journalists in Malawi, the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) will conduct knowledge and skills building exercises in digital security, develop reference materials and resources and convene stakeholder meetings on the Data Protection Bill. 

In Kenya, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, ADRF-supported projects on advancing learning and best practice in digital accessibility for persons with disabilities based on CIPESA’s Disability and ICT Accessibility Framework Indicators are underway by the Mozambican Forum of Disabled Persons’ Organizations (FAMOD)Signs of Hope Trust and the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet), respectively. 

Round seven brings to USD 700,000, the total amount of funding disbursed under the ADRF since it started in 2019. Information about past grantees can be found here.

Ongoing Power Cuts Set Back South Africa’s Gains on Digital Access 

By Tusi Fokane |

Over the last 15 years, South Africa has been caught in the midst of  an energy crisis with 2023 marking the most challenging period. The country experienced record-breaking power cuts, resulting in 300 days of load shedding at an economic cost of ZAR 1 billion per day (USD 55 million).  The power cuts which in some instances run up to eight hours a day have impacted South African society in various ways including through a rise in crime, reduced access to economic opportunities, health care, education and essential government services. There have also been concerns raised on the impact of load shedding on access to the internet. 

Internet access concerns fueled by the power cuts have included data affordability, availability of pre-paid internet packages, and convenience of access.  Whilst telecommunications companies have taken steps to minimise access disruptions, by investing in increased security, back-up, and alternative sources of energy, experts have warned that the continued power disruptions would exacerbate the digital divide, particularly for rural and poor communities. As part of efforts to avert the crisis, in May 2023,  the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), established a committee to assess the impact of load shedding on consumers of electronic communications, broadcasting, and postal services towards informing regulatory interventions for the sector.  

Meanwhile, according to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) telecommunications companies are lobbying for the declaration of the sector as a national strategic asset under the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act. The law deems a sector critical if it is essential for the economy, national security, public safety and the continuous provision of basic public services.

A Fracturing Digital Access Divide 

An estimated 79 percent of the South African population has access to the internet, predominantly through their mobile devices. Access to the internet, particularly in the post-Covid-19 environment, increased reliance on the sector as internet access facilitated many digital activities such as remote work and e-learning. However, the frequency of load shedding affects digital gains particularly for small businesses and students, leaving those without access to alternative sources of power, often unable to access internet services effectively.  According to Accountability Lab, citizens who can afford extra internet data, generators, and solar panels are managing to cope with the power outages. However, the Lab notes a widening of the gap between “digital haves and have-nots” and stresses that ”with limited access to online education and work options, citizens who are already struggling to afford the cost of living find themselves further behind.” Activists have warned that any load shedding mitigation undertaken by mobile network operators should not come at the expense of poor consumers who run the risk of being charged more for data services. 

Indeed, in a country with one of the highest inequality levels in the world, and an unemployment rate of 42 percent, there are concerns that continued load shedding is contributing to inequality and deepening the digital divide. Lower-income households have resorted to staying up until midnight waiting to benefit from “internet happy hours” where data packages are offered at cheaper rates than daytime packages.

Money Spent on Mitigating Load Shedding Could be Used to Expand Rural Access

Telecommunications service providers have not been spared from the consequences of the power cuts. The country’s second-largest mobile operator – MTN South Africa – reportedly spent ZAR 6.6 billion ( USD 360 million) on improvements to its network in 2023. Competitor, Vodacom, is set to increase its annual infrastructure spend to  ZAR 12 billion (USD 654 million) to strengthen its network. The investments will go towards back-up power systems (additional batteries, fuel and generators, and alternative energy sources) at their base stations and data centres. In addition, operators face increased security costs, due to theft and vandalism at their sites including the potential theft of high-capacity batteries which can fetch high values on the black market. 

The investment into back-up systems and batteries is key as longer periods of load shedding often result in batteries not charging sufficiently, affecting network availability, particularly in rural areas.  ICASA was recently taken to task by Members of Parliament for not conducting effective oversight in ensuring access to adequate network coverage. It was noted that service providers generally take their time to get to rural areas when there is a breakage or theft of cables or batteries, which undermines network stability in affected communities. The Select Committee Chair on Public Enterprises and Communication highlighted that internet access “is now no longer a matter of privilege but rather a right to have reliable signal” adding that ICASA needs to be firm and ensure that communications services are consistently provided. 

However, further challenges remain in rural areas which still face insufficient infrastructure deployment. Network operators concede that ongoing load shedding diverts much-needed capital away from rural infrastructure projects and new technologies. Concerns have also been raised on the negative impact to consumers, who will likely carry the additional costs through higher tariffs. Higher income earners have invested in fibre and wireless solutions to maintain connectivity during load shedding, but this comes with the additional costs of installing uninterruptible power supply (UPS). Some experts suggest that satellites, coupled with alternative energy sources, may be more resilient during higher stages of load shedding, or in the event of a total grid collapse. 

Industry stakeholders, through the Association of Comms and Technology have been lobbying for increased government support through policy reform and fuel subsidy rebates in order to avert a digital doomsday scenario where digital networks fail as a result of ongoing power cuts. The industry eagerly awaits the outcome of the ICASA committee on the impact of load shedding on the communications sector, which will hopefully also provide some relief to South African internet users.

CIPESA Joins Call Urging Content Platforms to Share Data with African Elections Researchers

Statement | 

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) has joined  over fifty media and research stakeholders from across Africa in calling for social media platforms to give equal treatment to Africans in line with what is being offered to researchers in major jurisdictions outside the continent. This call is based on the urgent need to monitor and formulate joint mitigation responses to disinformation and hate speech, given the elections in nearly 20 countries in Africa over the course of 2024.

The stakeholders making this call for parity in data access were brought together in Cape Town, South Africa, in November 2023 by Research ICT Africa (RIA) and International Media Support (IMS). 

The discussions by these stakeholders, coming from 11 African countries, noted that platforms provide space for public discourse, and serve as an important avenue for both access to, and sharing of, elections data and information. But the stakeholders noted that the platforms are also sites for amplifying potentially harmful online content that corrupts elections, threatens journalists, increases polarisation, and incites violence during or after the polls. 

The organisers invited X (Twitter), Meta (owner of Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp), Google (owner of YouTube), and TikTok to be part of the discussions, but representatives of these platforms did not attend. The call remains for these global tech companies to join such discussions in the future and to make their application programming interfaces (APIs) open and available to African researchers as a way of building trust, and working on joint responses or actions on misinformation and disinformation. 

The discussions recognised that long-standing African accords do provide for accessing information during elections, as agreed by the African Union’s African Commission on Human Peoples’ Rights. The stakeholders proposed that these resources be linked to further pan-African instruments on data and on elections, in order to ensure improved data access and governance on a continental scale.

RIA and IMS are encouraging further multi-stakeholder dialogues among more actors at the country level focused on using big data to research both positive and negative dimensions of platforms in regard to the integrity of African elections and online content. More specifically, the meeting emphasised research aimed at studying how organised networks and large language model-based generative artificial intelligence (AI), and other forms of AI-based technologies, are impacting the polls.

On a related matter, the stakeholders encourage the European Commission and Digital Services Coordinators to ensure that researchers and research institutions outside the European Union, including on the African continent, can gain access to platforms’ APIs and search engines’ data under the European Digital Service Act’s (DSA) Article 40.  

More concretely, this means ensuring that researchers not based in the EU are eligible to become “vetted researchers” as defined by the DSA when conducting research that contributes to “the detection, identification, and understanding of systemic risks in the Union.” These steps would strengthen inclusivity and diversity by taking into consideration the DSA’s global potential and impacts.

The discussions recognised that public interest access to data held by the platforms is not at the expense of personal data protection, and that the two objectives are not mutually exclusive.

Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC), Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Digital Action, Paradigm Initiative, Somali Media Women Association (SOMWA) and OpenUp  express support for the momentum of national dialogues on these topics. 

To add your organisation’s name, or for further information, please email: [email protected]

Originally published on Research ICT Africa. See here.