Leveraging the Digital Space to Combat Human Trafficking in DR Congo, The Gambia and Mauritania

By Ashnah Kalemera and Simone Toussi | 

The growth in usage of digital technologies in Africa is fuelling technology-enabled human trafficking activities in the region. But these very technologies can be leveraged to fight the vice that is sweeping across the continent..

With support from the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF), the African Legal Think Tank on Women’s Rights (ALTOWR) has studied the role of the internet in fuelling human trafficking, including online recruitment and advertisement in Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), The Gambia and Mauritania. Besides the results being enlightening, the project has produced a curriculum for skills and knowledge building on how the internet can be used to fuel or to combat human trafficking.

According to the annual Trafficking in Persons Report, many African countries experience diverse forms of human trafficking. In 2020, for every 10 victims of trafficking, five were adult women and two were girls. DR Congo, The Gambia and Mauritania  are among the countries on the continent where the vice is rife. 

The Global Slavery Index, which measures where modern slavery (forced labour, human trafficking and forced marriages) occurs and how governments are responding, ranked the three countries 12th, 58th and 6th respectively, out of 167 globally. With national internet penetration rates of 19.2% in DR Congo, 63% in Mauritania and 19% in The Gambia, human trafficking networks in these countries are increasing relying on the internet and social media platforms to recruit victims.

In the DR Congo, there are over one million estimated victims, with most trafficking involving “forced labour in artisanal mining sites, agriculture, domestic servitude, or armed groups recruiting children in combat and support roles, as well as sex trafficking.” 

Indeed, ALTOWR’s study found that population displacement due to the conflict in the DR Congo had created a favourable environment for exploitation of vulnerable communities. The study details cases of sexual slavery and forced marriages in the country’s capital Kinshasa, as well as in neighbouring Rwanda; illegal migration to South Africa via Burundi and Tanzania; and abductions, resulting in sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/ AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, and hefty ransom payments. In all case studies, the perpetrators used social media platforms including Facebook and Whatsapp to lure victims. 

Read more: Le Rôle de l’internet dans la Croissance de la Traite des Etres Humains en République Démocratique du Congo

In The Gambia, an estimated 11,000 individuals are victims of modern slavery, out of a total population of just under two million. Gambian women, girls and to some extent boys are subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour fuelled by the country’s thriving tourism sector. 

Gambia’s law against human trafficking was passed in 2007 and the country established the National Agency Against Trafficking in Persons, whose operations commenced in 2013 but are restricted by limited resources. As such, According to the ALTOWR study, efforts to prosecute perpetrators of human trafficking are “minimal.” Among the cases investigated, particularly for Gambians trafficked to the Middle East, travel logistics are arranged online.

Read more: The Role of the Internet in Fueling the Growth of Human Trafficking in The Gambia 

Meanwhile, despite reforms against trafficking and smuggling of persons in Mauritania, modern slavery “is entrenched in society with slave status being inherited and deeply rooted in social castes and wider social system” in the country where there are an estimated 90,000 victims, out of a population of four million. Located between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, with a long and porous border, Mauritania is a transit route for smugglers and traffickers between Africa, Europe and the Middle East. 

Read more: Le Rôle de l’internet dans la Croissance de la Traite des Etres Humains en Mauritanie

In Africa, human traffickers use the Internet to identify, recruit, coerce and control victims as well as to  advertise the services or products resulting from their exploitation. They also use it to launder the illicit revenue earned from their activities. Migrant smugglers use the Internet for similar purposes. Online African Organized Crime from Surface to Darkweb, 2020

The studies recommend that government, civil society and other stakeholders in the three countries leverage online platforms for prevention and protection campaigns as well as outreach, including on risks, avenues for reporting and access to support services (psychosocial, mental, physical and legal including referrals). On prosecution, recommendations include the need for skills and knowledge building for enforcement authorities to understand human trafficking via the internet. The studies also recommend leveraging technology for witness protection during criminal proceedings and the enactment of specific legislation on online sex crimes and cyber trafficking. 

The findings and recommendations of the studies fed into the development of country-specific curriculums that informed three in-country trainings targeted at survivors and networks working to combat human trafficking. The  aim was to equip them with tools to influence prevention and protection strategies. The trainings reached a total of 63 beneficiaries including youth groups, women’s rights organisations, and civil society organisations, and were preceded by a Trainings of Trainers (ToT) in each country. 

The discussions at the trainings fed into two regional roundtables [French and English] which explored ways to improve and implement the existing legal frameworks, strengthen border controls, and multi-stakeholder efforts to eradicate socio-cultural constraints and practices that undermine victims’ rights. Representatives in the roundtables were drawn from the African Union, the North-South Center Council of Europe, the Counter Trafficking Unit of the International Organization for Migration, alongside several think-tanks, networks, and civil society organisations. 

The engagements resulted in the establishment of country task forces to support the development of collaborative action plans that leverage the internet to push back against human trafficking. The study results will continue to inform the work by ALTOWR and CIPESA in understanding how digital technologies can best be leveraged to combat human trafficking in Africa.

Is the future of the internet in Africa fractured?

By Daniel Mwesigwa |
At its founding, in the late 80s, the internet promised to democratize information, level uneven grounds, and the destroy barriers associated with distance, space, and time. Through promoting communication, coordination, integration at a pace and scale beyond the ability of any government to halt, the connectivity set a foundation for dichotomies so often aligned with colonialism, imperialism, and globalization.
Today the internet is not just about inscrutable abstracts on the potential merits of its ubiquity but rather its impact and probable effects on a global scale. If anything, the weaponization of algorithms, speech, objectivity, and people has been pronounced in the recent past. For example, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have accepted responsibility for abetting electoral malfeasance in America and other states by enabling the manipulation of electorates through an à la carte of sensational news and unsubstantiated political advertising only meant to swing and tilt public opinion.
That is why it might be hard to assess whether governments will continue to sit back and watch powerful technology companies from the west continue to prowl over strategic industries in their backyards, or whether they will take to the ‘commanding heights’ to steer the internet’s governance, at the expense of an open and decentralized internet, within their jurisdictions.
But how did we get there? An Xiao Mina’s instructive take on the potential effects of censorship on the future of the global internet and the attendant effects on the public sphere predicts not only deeper digital divides but also bolder and even more daring abuses to democracy by nation-states. She’s not alone, Google’s former chairman, Eric Schmidt, and internet theorist and scholar Evgeny Morozov have made similar pronouncements: the internet is splintering due to policy dilemmas in the realms of sovereignty and globalization.
In spite of all; bad laws, technical upheavals, spam, and disruptions, the popular narrative is that we could not kill the “global” internet even if we tried. However, through technical disruptions (covert and overt) and an array of legal and regulatory guises, governments in Africa have institutionalized attacks on the internet at a level not experienced before.
Censorship is arguably one of the leading factors threatening the future of the internet. And China is the pariah. It has been particular to institutionalize censorship through remodelling its own internet reality in what the Communist party president, Xi Jinping, calls ‘internet sovereignty’. The Republic augmented her stringent controls on free speech and tightened media regulations in the real world onto the internet through even tighter controls on content, privacy and security. Through ambitious projects like the infamous “Great Firewall” and the more recent proposal to create a dystopian future where citizens are assessed for the good and bad through a “national social rating system”, China has asserted her position on her internet governance despite the internet’s original ideals on openness and decentralization. Indeed, China’s ethos on “internet sovereignty” are being evangelized and promoted in fragile, and weak nation-states. Zimbabwe is reported to be in the process of adopting a Chinese sanctioned facial recognition system to surveil high traffic areas such as airports and malls. For its renowned poor human rights record, such surveillance capabilities pose a danger to a free society.
Further, African governments have been renown for clandestinely shutting down the internet for all sorts of reasons—twice in Uganda during the 2016 presidential elections and over three months in the English-speaking region of Cameroon—usually in defence “national security”. Such censorships have been arbitrarily executed despite the punitive economic costs associated. Some governments have even flirted with the idea of developing local alternatives to popular social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter so as to have full control over the knobs of social media must the need arise.
But also the censorship has been effected through particularly prohibitive laws meant to derail social media use and charge social critics and other dissenting voices. For example, the cybercrime laws of countries such as Tanzania give the police the mandate to arrest anybody they deem in breach of cyber laws without the necessary legal oversight. Tanzania has introduced a $900 tax for bloggers, Uganda has slapped a “gossip tax” on social media use and other OTT services, Zambia has levied a cost on internet voice calls. If the feel of the contours is anything to go by, censorship has taken unique and complex forms. It seems like many African governments are operating from the same template.
Meanwhile, if we might on what the future of the internet might look like, despite the attacks, we know it will largely be multimedia and highly, rather unsurprisingly, localized. The internet in the past faced severe infrastructural deficits. For example, before the first landfall of transatlantic fibre optic cables at the coast of East Africa in 2009, the internet was not only accessed through more expensive options such as satellite links, generally suffered lower speeds and was inaccessible with the greater part of the region.
The global interconnection through the fibre and terrestrial optic cables enabled further access and connectivity within the region. Most remarkably, local peering and Content Delivery Networks (CDN) increased internet capacity. Loosely defined, local peering means that instead of a webpage directly loading from some server located in an obscure location in North Carolina, a local copy of the same data would be stored on servers hosted locally, in Africa. This bolsters the user experience and also enables the reduction of costs associated with extending the internet to the last mile.
Of course, such developments are welcome but technology companies and giants predominantly from Silicon Valley have taken over these alternative connectivity methods to further affordable internet access to the “last mile”. However, they also have deep financial and corporate interests at heart. In fact, content companies such as Facebook are laying more fibre optic cables than traditionally renowned telecommunications carrier/infrastructure companies. Facebook has laid its first fibre in sub-Saharan Africa, in Uganda at a cost estimated at $100 million. Google had previously done the same in Uganda and Ghana. Overall, major countries seem to have some sort of connectivity experiment going on involving the use of low frequency, wifi hotspots, rockets and other novel technologies—again, spearheaded by Western tech giants. Such moves have raised concerns on issues regarding net neutrality, data protection and privacy, local content, among others. Technology companies seen through the lenses of benevolence might appear as benign catalysers of internet access. Yet by mere ownership of the plumbing that powers the internet effectively makes their services synonymous with the open internet itself. Indeed, it would not be surprising to find people who think Facebook is the internet. Technology companies could not only influence the internet’s direction but also act as a chokepoint, especially when deciding what geographical areas or income groups to serve or not.
While globalization was mostly lauded for is the discovery of previously unchartered territories and the opening of new frontiers, a lot of how it happened was characterized with pillage and violence—often at the expense of conquered states’ sovereignties. The globalization of the world through the internet promised trade and commerce, education and research, government and service delivery through instantaneous communication, on levelled grounds. But many of the paradigm shifts have enabled good use of the internet insofar as they have enabled abusive, problematic use. Now governments seem to have taken centre stage in steering what directions their internet takes, powerful corporations, on the other hand, have grown so powerful since they can algorithmically control and mediate the internet’s content, and emotions, that they threaten democracy and other virtues of good governance, especially in fragile states. As for the users, disparate realities of the internet look not so far away, some Facebook (through Free Basics) is touted to better than no Facebook (or internet) at all. Balkanization of the internet is at rather happening at an unprecedented pace. Is the future of the internet in Africa fractured?
This article was first published on December 19, 2018, African School on Internet Governance

Why Uganda’s Government Should Take a Different Path to Social Media and Mobile Money Taxation

Statement |
There has been widespread concern over newly introduced levies on social media access and mobile money transactions in Uganda, which are widely considered a threat to internet access and affordability, as well as to freedom of expression and access to information. The effects of the taxes that took effect on July 1, 2018, were the focus of discussions at a recent stakeholder dialogue  organised by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and the Internet Society Uganda Chapter.
At the dialogue, entrepreneurs, journalists, lawyers, activists, technologists, and academics shared their perspectives and experiences, resulting in a set of recommendations to the government on alternatives to the current modes of taxation.
The government says the taxes are needed so as  to expand the country’s tax base. In the 2018/2019 national budget speech, the finance ministry estimates that up to UGX 486 billion (USD 131 million) could be collected annually by 2022 from taxes on social media Over-The-Top (OTT) services.
However,   presenting early results on an ongoing study on the impact of the taxes, Dr. Christopher Stork of Research ICT Solutions stated that the country’s rural-based users of social media and mobile money will be hardest hit by the taxes, increasing the percentage of the unconnected and resulting in decreased revenue for telecom/ internet operators. He said this would ultimately lead to reduced growth in the gross domestic product (GDP) and hamper job creation.

Image above: Comparison of taxes against average income across regions in Uganda | Source:  Research ICT Solutions

Image above: Prepaid products user tax burdens | Source:  Research ICT Solutions
This study’s preliminary results affirm earlier contentions, such as by the After Access researchers, that those who marginally afforded internet services before the taxes were introduced are likely to now find internet use totally unaffordable, thereby increasing the percentage of the unconnected.
Meanwhile, Dr. Abdul Busuulwa, Executive Director at Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) Africa Network, said whereas social media and mobile money platforms had eased the lives of persons with disabilities (PWDs),However, the increased cost of accessing these platforms due to the new taxes had reversed these  gains. He said platforms like WhatsApp were helping in disseminating critical information among people with hearing difficulties before the added cost of using social media rendered them unaffordable to members of these groups, who he said already faced challenges in finding employment and often relied on financial support from others.
The impact of the taxes on the use of online platforms for civic engagement on local governance was described by Samuel Mumbere, ICT Officer at the Kasese District Local Government in Western Uganda. According to Mumbere, whereas introduction of the taxes had prompted a rise in the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) by community members who needed to maintain avenues of social accountability and access to information in the district, many were concerned about the additional costs related to data usage by some VPN products.
On the access to justice front, the online legal knowledge and support platform, Barefoot Law, was cited as a social media-based service that had enabled citizens to access legal support and services which the poor are often excluded from due to financial constraints. Such platforms are also threatened with reduced use by citizens due to the taxes.
Those in e-commerce cited barriers to accessing their clients, and reduced competitiveness of their products and services, due to the taxes. The Managing Director of Jumia Uganda noted that the company’s work with some 3,000 different sellers, 1,000 hotels, and over 200 restaurants had experienced strained operations as their operations relied greatly on social media.
Although the mobile money transactions tax is under review, with a new bill tabled before parliament proposing to reduce the tax from 1% to 0.5%, this does little to address the impact the tax will still have on financial inclusion. Feminist and writer, Edna Ninsiima, highlighted the role that mobile money has played in empowering unbanked women. She said the new transaction fees are affecting the financial independence of women – including building a savings culture – where it had been growing steadily.
Meanwhile, Kojo Boakye, Public Policy Manager, Access and Connectivity, Facebook, cited the counter impact of the taxation on digital dividends including efforts to extend connectivity and broadband penetration. He questioned the likelihood of the tax raising the projected revenue, adding that  the tax could also have an impact on the investment decisions of investors in infrastructure. In 2017, Facebook, in partnership with Airtel Uganda and Bandwidth and Cloud Services (BCS) Uganda announced  a USD 100 million project to lay nearly 800 km of fibre optic cable in north-western Uganda. Like Facebook, Google has also worked to extend connectivity in Uganda with infrastructure investments including a wifi project in the capital, Kampala.
Overall, participants at the dialogue pointed out that the taxes are not only discriminatory in nature but also disenfranchise already marginalised and vulnerable communities including PWDs, women, youth and rural communities. They called on the government to reassess its position on the taxes without inhibiting growth in ICT usage and innovation. The dialogue was also introspective with many noting that more proactive and collaborative efforts should be pursued by non-state actors, especially research and participating in consultative policy processes, to enhance informed decision-making by the government.

The Growing Trend of African Governments’ Requests for User Information and Content Removal From Internet and Telecom Companies

Policy Brief |
The relationship between communications service providers, users and governments with regards to data protection, requests of user information and content take downs is increasingly taking centre stage in discussions around free, open and secure use of digital technologies.
In February 2017, Millicom issued its second Law Enforcement Disclosure Report. Millicom’s report is one of many by private companies aimed at promoting transparency and accountability, through periodically publishing reports detailing information on government requests for user data, content removals, and compliance with those requests.
Google is credited with being the first internet company to publish a transparency report back in 2009, followed by Twitter in 2012. Facebook and Yahoo have published reports since 2013. Vodafone and Orange were among the first telecommunications companies to publish transparency reports, both in 2014.
These reports have become vital to understanding censorship, surveillance and more importantly the commitment of service providers to protecting the privacy of their users and promoting freedom of expression online. Based on the reports alone, it remains unclear what the true extent of governments’ surveillance of citizens’ communications and censorship of content across the world is. Nonetheless, the reports indicate a growing trend among countries, including African governments, of requests for subscribers’ data and content removal.
On the social media front, from five African countries being listed by Facebook among those that requested users’ details in the first half of 2013, the number on the continent has grown to 18 as at the end of 2016. Meanwhile, requests to remove content from Google have also grown from only Libya in 2010 and 2011, to four African countries in 2016 alone. Twitter, which only received one user information request from South Sudan in 2012, has since gone on to receive requests from an additional four countries on the continent. The countries which have consistently made requests for user information to Google, Facebook and Twitter include South Africa, Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya and Egypt.
In telecommunications, figures are scanty as only four companies operating in Africa issue transparency reports – one of which, MTN, does not disclose any statistics while Vodafone’s extent of disclosure is limited due to legal provisions in some of its countries of operation that prohibit publishing of such information. Even then, user data requests from five African governments to Millicom have increased from 5,000 in 2015 to nearly 7,000 in 2016. Requests to Orange from the 20 African countries where it had operations as at the end of 2016 have tripled in the past three years – from 22,930 in 2014 to 67,718 in 2016.
In this brief, we provide a summary of the user data and content removal requests which governments in Africa have made to select internet and telecommunications companies in recent years.

Should Internet-based Firms Explain Terms and Conditions to Users?

By Kofi Yeboah|
There are many users of internet based platforms, like Facebook and Google, who are unaware of the existence of the terms and conditions that are available on the platform websites for users to familiarise themselves with and understand. The terms and conditions outline what is expected of both parties in agreement and also what both parties can and cannot do including with private data. Whose responsibility is it to popularise these often long policies to users?
This question was one of the most debated and discussed at the just ended Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2016 (FIFAfrica16) which was organised by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA). Sharing of user data by internet based firms, either upon request by particular governments or other entities has become one of the most worrying factors for many internet users. Users of social media platforms do not entirely have control over who has access to their data, neither do they always have an understanding of the privacy policy associated with using these platforms.
As part of the panel discussion on transparency and accountability of intermediaries at#FIFAfrica16, Ebele Okobi, Head of Public Policy, Africa, Facebook, stated that “terms of service are the main mechanism used by companies to communicate with customers. Read them”. In other words, it is the responsibility of the user to read and understand what the terms of service say. However, most users do not read the terms of service “before clicking accept” and as pointed out by Anriette Esterhuysen of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), firms hide behind that user ignorance to achieve their strategic goals at the detriment of user privacy.
 Do Terms of Service Govern the Relationship?
“Terms of services do not govern the relationship between users and the company,” noted Ms. Okobi. She added that terms of service are the mechanism by which companies communicate with their users on the product. This implies that a firm can take an action that will affect a user with or without his/her permission.
 What can be done?
Terms of services need to be in clear language and displayed boldly for users to read and understand. Internet-based firms should also consciously create awareness about the importance of reading the terms of services and also interpreting them to users. The firms should take the first step in explaining to users what the terms of services actually mean and what are they agreeing to for using the products. Terms of service should be simplified for users to understand the risks involved in signing up onto a platform and also outline how their data will be collected and used.
Meanwhile, users need to understand the rights they are giving up to internet-based firms when they check the “I agree” box on terms of service. On an ongoing basis, companies need to communicate with users to help understand why they need to collect their information and assure them the data being collected will be secured and not shared with third parties without their consent.
This article was first published at kofiyeboah.com on October 10, 2016.