Building Capacity and Collaborations for Digital Rights Research in Africa

By CIPESA Staff Writer |

Evidence-based digital rights advocacy has become particularly crucial in Africa as a growing number of governments and powerful private actors continue to undermine citizens’ online rights through legal and extra-legal means. 

But as the need for internet policy advocacy that is informed by research grows, it is essential to increase the amount and depth of research originating from, and relevant to, Africa. Equally, it is necessary to expand beyond traditional research methods to include contemporary approaches such as network measurements, social network analysis, and data mining.

How then do we grow subject area expertise and capacity in conducting multi-disciplinary digital rights research among the digital rights researcher and practitioner communities? How can we build multi-sector and multi-country collaborations that produce actionable research results to inform advocacy and policy making?

These questions were at the centre of a Digital Rights Research Methods Workshop conducted on September 24, 2019 as one of the pre-events to the 2019 Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica19) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The workshop was attended by 58 participants who included university lecturers, staff of international human rights organisations, digital rights researchers, activists, technologists and lawyers. 

It built on the foundations of a five-day intensive training on internet policy research methods co-organised with the Annenberg School for Communication’s Internet Policy Observatory in 2018, which aimed to train, connect, and build collaboration between researchers, activists, academics and internet freedom advocates, and brought together 40 participants from 17 countries.

Participants engaging with each other during the workshop | Picture by: Gilbert Bwette

Below are highlights from the Digital Rights Research Methods Workshop held at FIFAfrica19.

Qualitative Research Techniques and Data Practices for Human Rights Research 

This track explored the role and potential of qualitative methods and techniques when conducting research on human rights issues. While many techniques are available to researchers, qualitative methods can generate important insights into the social, cultural, and individual worlds of participants. 

In this session, Prof. Peter Fussey, a Director at the Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy (CRISP) at the University of Essex, explained that while qualitative methods are varied, they largely adopt three broad approaches: qualitative interviewing, ethnographic method, and qualitative text analysis. 

While describing these methods in detail, Prof. Fussey – who is also a Research Director of the Human Rights, Big Data and Technology project – explained what constitutes robust and methodologically rigorous research. He provided examples of how such techniques have been used in many creative ways and have offered insights into issues such as how power is experienced and mediated in prisons, the lives of activists, social bonds among social movements, community perspectives of intensive policing, online behaviours, and occupational cultures among law enforcement officers.

Experiences in conducting digital rights research
In this session, Jimmy Kainja (University of Malawi), Raymond Onuoha (Lagos Business School), Richard Ngamita (data specialist), Victor Kapiyo and Paul Kimumwe (CIPESA), shared experiences in researching digital rights. They cited several challenges like data unavailability, low research funding, resistance to researching on “sensitive” topics like LGBTI rights, continued reliance on traditional research approaches, underutilisation of available digital data, difficulties in finding government  information online, and difficulty in finding the right collaborators.  

Left to Right: Paul Kimumwe, Jimmy Kainja, Richard Ngamita, Raymond Onuoha, Victor Kapiyo | Picture by: Gilbert Bwette

According to Kimumwe, there is a lack of a pool of researchers with the relevant skills to conduct digital research. “There is no specific training of researchers. There is a lot of learning on the job and this sometimes compromises on the quality of research outputs since some critical issues are ignored – like choosing the best possible method, sampling and ethical considerations,” he said.

Other challenges mentioned include poor dissemination of research results to relevant audiences including policy makers and human rights defender organisations; and failure to make research part and parcel of digital rights advocacy work. It was recommended that, wherever feasible, government officials and other stakeholders be included in the research design in order for the research results to  be used to influence these stakeholders. Also recommendation was nurturing collaborations involving academic institutions, research institutions and digital rights advocacy organisations; capacity building in fundraising for research; and developing an African open data ecosystem to enhance access to research data, data sharing, and data re-use.

Assessing Legal Frameworks Affecting Civic Space  

Track three of the workshop introduced participants to the concepts of civic space and international principles protecting association, assembly, and expression rights. During the session, Irene Petras and Florence Nakazibwe from the International Center for Non-Profit Law (ICNL), provided examples of how various types of legislation are used to restrict these rights in practice, including in the digital space; and shared strategies on how to raise civic awareness of legal frameworks and promote legal reforms to improve the enabling environment for civil society and the media.

It was noted that governments, including in Africa, are increasingly restricting civic space in different ways. While the restrictions have traditionally manifested through legislation aimed at regulating the operations of civil society organisations and mainstream media, new concerns such as countering money laundering and terrorism, regulating current and emerging digital technologies, and policing online activities have widened the menu of laws, policies and administrative practices that can negatively affect civic space.

Accordingly, noted Petras and Nakazibwe, greater efforts are needed to ensure effective and progressive international and continental legal standards and protective mechanisms, and to widen the network of state and non-state actors who can advocate for positive reforms.

The Internet Measurements Laboratory

The growing internet user numbers in Africa make it prudent to understand the structure and behaviour of the internet. This is important given the rising incidents of malicious attacks (and the sophistication of methods and tools used) as well as the increase in cases of internet censorship and network disruptions (with little transparency by censoring states and telecom companies about their actions). 

The Laboratory was led by Alp Toker and Isik Mater of Netblocks. In the first part they took participants through why measurement evidence-based approaches to internet rights advocacy are critical, what impact they are having, how the latest tools can be used and coordinated by technical and civil society stakeholders, and how data can be integrated as evidence in legal and policy-making contexts. The second half featured real-time visualisations exploring various countries’ current and historic internet data readings, and future directions for network measurements. 

Measuring the occurrence of internet censorship and identifying techniques employed is instrumental to scientifically documenting the phenomenon, understanding its effects, raising the awareness of users and building response mechanisms. The aim of the Internet Measurement Laboratory was to get more African actors, notably those that work on internet freedom issues, involved in conducting regular, multi-methods internet measurements.

The Laboratory was also expected to help generate closer linkages between measurement organisations and internet freedom researchers, advocates and activists; and offer practical knowledge on how to utilise measurement data from entities so as to generate research insights to improve understanding of the technological ways through which internet disruptions have been implemented over time and in various countries, and to build responsive response mechanisms and advocacy campaigns.

According to 2018 research by the African Network Information Centre (Afrinic), there are very few measurement campaigns in Africa and they tend to have challenges of generating high fidelity data. Moreover, there is widespread lack of awareness and skills on internet measurements, which creates a need for increasing research collaborations between groups that conduct measurements, and those that need measurement results for research and advocacy purposes.

Way forward

There was consensus in the workshop on the need to build reciprocal relationships across disciplinary silos, as well as collaborative networks that include researchers and practitioners based in different regions, including in the global North and South. Continued research methods training, including in techniques such as text analysis, data mining, and network measurements, was reiterated. Capacity development to conduct research, advocacy and policy influencing on emerging issues such as biometrics processing and artificial intelligence was also cited. 

“This workshop has helped us to appreciate more the gaps and challenges in digital rights research methods in our region. As researchers and practitioners, we need to keep abreast with the fast developments in the digital world. What are the new surveillance methods? How do AI and biometrics processing affect digital rights, and how do we robustly research these issues? The workshop brought together an incredible mix of stakeholders and illuminated ways for collaboration to conduct relevant and impactful research whose results can power advocacy and influence policy in multiple jurisdictions.” Dr Wairagala Wakabi, CIPESA Executive Director

Further, it was agreed that entities that have research skills start to offer support to others, in research design and implementation; and that they pursue joint research and be available to conduct peer review of others’ research. It was also proposed that digital rights researchers and practitioners should forge closer links with the private sector to produce credible analysis on policies and practices affecting tech use and digital rights.

Council of Europe to Host Session on Cybercrime Legislation in Africa at the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2018 (FIFAfrica18)

Announcement |
The Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2018 (#FIFAfrica18) is pleased to announce the participation of the Council of Europe (CoE), through its Cybercrime Division, at the landmark event which is set to take place in Accra, Ghana, at the end of September.
The panel aims to contribute to the on-going efforts on harmonisation of national cybercrime laws with international and regional standards in the African continent, and provide a specific focus on human rights safeguards. International experts, with background on drafting, implementing and enforcing cybercrime legislation, will facilitate an interactive discussion with the participants by introducing the current state of cybercrime legislation in the African continent, debating the progress made in the recent years and discussing the entailed human rights challenges.
FIFAfrica convenes various stakeholders from the internet governance and online rights arenas in Africa and beyond to deliberate on gaps, concerns and opportunities for advancing privacy, access to information, free expression, non-discrimination and the free flow of information online. This year’s forum, which runs from September 26 to 28, is hosted by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA).
According to recent statistics, Africa is exhibiting one of the fastest growth rates in Internet penetration worldwide, with digital connectivity that has almost tripled in the last five years. In the same period, both governments and private sector entities in Africa have been experiencing an equally increasing trend of cyber-attacks.
The CoE has taken steps to protect the pillars of democracy in the digital age particularly as  large-scale theft of personal data, computer intrusions, bullying, harassment and other forms of cyber violence, or sexual violence against children online, affect the extent to which the use of online tools enables participation in democratic processes. Moreover, it is notable that hate speech, xenophobia and racism may contribute to radicalisation, leading to violent extremism.
Attacks against computers used in elections and election campaigns are attacks against democracy. Daily attacks against critical information infrastructure affect national security and economic and other national interests as well as international peace and stability. Moreover, evidence in relation to fraud, corruption, murder, rape, terrorism, the sexual abuse of children and, in fact, any type of crime may take the form of electronic evidence, which is volatile, often intangible and probably in other jurisdictions. And accessing such evidence also has implications for human rights and the rule of law. Effective, legally compliant and robust procedures for the identification, collection and preservation of electronic evidence are therefore essential.
It is in regard to these trends that the CoE will host a panel discussion at FIFAfrica18 that will include reference to the Budapest Convention. The convention is an international treaty that aims at providing substantive legislation and procedural powers for criminal justice authorities to effectively tackle cybercrime, while upholding rule of law and human rights. Since its entry into force in 2004, the Budapest Convention has proven to be a solid baseline for enhanced cooperation across borders, and many governments in Africa, as well as in the rest of the world, have undertaken legal reforms using it as a guideline.

Apply For UPRoar: Advocating for Internet Freedom with the Universal Periodic Review (UPR)

Apply Now |
Are you interested in Internet Freedom? Are you worried about the social and economic impact of internet shutdowns? The increase of media censorship? Is your government using outdated media laws to regulate online spaces? Are they inventing new policies to clamp down on internet users? Do you want to do something about it?! Then read on!
In the lead up to the 2018 Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica), Small Media and the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) are hosting a 2-day interactive capacity building workshop on Internet Freedom and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The workshop is part of a wider project working to support civil society organisations across Africa to engage with the UPR process through research, capacity development and developing tools to support internet freedom advocacy.
If your application is accepted, you’ll join us in Accra, Ghana, where you and your co-participants will work together on interactive projects with the guidance of our trainers and mentors. You’ll be introduced to the UPR process, learn how to leverage different moments during the UPR timeline for advocacy, practice gathering and analysing data and creating infographic material to campaign around key issues relating to internet freedom, and create a practical advocacy plan that you can implement to follow up on recommendations made in the periodic reviews.
The shining stars who attend this workshop will also have the opportunity to apply to attend a DATA4CHAN.GE (D4C) workshop in 2019 where they will develop data driven advocacy campaigns that support independent research or organisation UPR objectives.
This call is open to individuals who are interested in and preferably have experience in human rights advocacy and are active in the following countries: Angola, Ethiopia, Gambia, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Applicants must have knowledge of Africa’s ICT sector and its role in development and governance. Participants must ensure availability for the duration of the workshop as well as FIFAfrica – 4 days excluding travel.
Complete the application form here.
The deadline for applications is 18.00 East African Time on July 31, 2018.
For questions, please email [email protected].

2018 Edition of the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) Set To Take Place In Ghana

Announcement |
The Collaboration for International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) is pleased to announce the fifth edition of the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica). This year, the Forum will be hosted in partnership with the Media Foundation West Africa (MFWA) and will take place on September 26–28, 2018 in Accra, Ghana.
The Forum is a landmark event that convenes various stakeholders from the internet governance and online rights arenas in Africa and beyond to deliberate on gaps, concerns and opportunities for advancing privacy, access to information, free expression, non-discrimination and the free flow of information online on the continent.
Since inception, FIFAfrica has also served as a platform to mark the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI). Engagements at the Forum aim to reflect current trends and concerns in access and usage of the internet and related technologies on the continent. As such, each year has seen us launch themed research on the State of Internet Freedom in Africa. Last year, we also launched a key report on Calculating the Economic Cost of Internet Disruptions in Sub-Saharan Africa.
While the 2014, 2015 and 2016 editions of FIFAfrica were hosted in Uganda, in 2017, the Forum was hosted in Johannesburg, South Africa in partnership with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), an international network and non-profit organisation that works towards a free and open internet.
Indeed, spreading the physical footprint of FIFAfrica across different regions of the continent ensures that the Forum lives up to its goal of unpacking internet freedom challenges and opportunities in sub-regions of Africa and developing responses that are collaborative, and informed by insights from the experience of other sub-regions of the continent. Hosting the Forum in in west Africa for the first time will not only open up the space to more west African civil society, private sector and public sector actors to contribute their experiences to the regional discussion, but will  also give life to the Forum’s commitment of ensuring broader regional representation and deepening conversations across the continent.
At a practical level, skills development among participants is prioritized. Previous Forums have seen our partners AccessNow and DefendDefenders host digital security clinics. In 2017, The Localisation Lab hosted a localization sprint aimed at advancing the adoption of internet freedom tools in East and Southern Africa through translation of technologies and creation of key resources to support the education, training, and adaptation of digital security and circumvention tools in the region. This included the translation of tools into languages like Shona, Luganda, and Ndebele.
Other skills development events at the Forum have in the past included a workshop on Strategic Digital Rights Litigation hosted in partnership with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, and the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI) and a workshop on human rights review mechanisms, which took participants through African and United Nations (UN) Universal Periodic Reviews processes which was hosted by APC, CIPESA and Small Media.
With strategic linkages to other internet freedom forums and support for the development of substantive inputs to inform the conversations on human rights online happening at national level, at the African Union and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), the African Internet Governance Forum (IGF), subregional IGFs, the global IGF, Stockholm Internet Forum (SIF), the Internet Freedom Festival (IFF), the Internet Freedom Forum (Nigeria) and RightsCon, among others, FIFAfrica provides a pan-African space where discussion from these other events can be consolidated at continent-wide level, drawing a large multi-stakeholder audience of actors.

See the evolution of the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica)

Share your thoughts on your vision for Internet Freedom in Africa using #InternetFreedomAfrica  This year, the event hashtag is #FIFAfrica18
Propose A Session For #FIFAfrica18
Do you have suggestions of session topics, panels, skills clinics, presentations or any additional activities that you’d like to see happen prior or alongside the Forum. Use this form to submit your ideas.
Be A Part of #FIFAfrica18
Do you want to exhibit your work at #FIFAfrica18? Would you like to support #FIFAfrica18?  Please send us an email: [email protected]

Reflecting on the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) at the Internet Governance Forum 2017

IGF Pre-event |
Join the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) at the Internet Governance Forum 2017 where we will share on the evolution of the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) at a pre-event on December 17, 2017!
We’ll explore insights from our latest report on the State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2017 themed Intermediaries’ Role In Advancing Internet Freedom – Challenges And Prospects as well as uncover what is sometimes left out of discussions on the economic impacts of internet shutdowns in Sub-Saharan Africa. For this discussion we’ll reference a new framework we developed this year. You can see more about it here: Calculating the Economic Impact of Internet Disruptions in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Are you keen on going into the IGF with a solid background on the internet freedom landscape in Africa?  Join us as we reflect on the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica), discuss its evolution, the lessons learnt, the gaps and opportunities that lie ahead for policy development and practical advancement of digital rights in  Africa.

  • Venue: Join us at Room 18, Centre International de Conférences Genève (CICG)
  • Location:  17 rue de Varembé, CH – 1211 Genève 20
  • Date: Sunday, December 17, 2017
  • Time: 13h30 – 14h30

We’ll also share how various organisations have supported the growth of the FIFAfrica in various ways ranging from increasing participation of African delegates, in-depth research and analysis, unique workshops, through to skills exchange and network building.
To confirm attendance, please register here.