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.

An Enabling Environment for Inclusive Digital Transformation

FIFAfrica19 |
The digital economy, including cross-border services, digital trade, and electronic commerce (eCommerce), contributes to democratic and economic development by expanding market access for local businesses, promoting inclusive trade, creating jobs, and expanding tax revenue for governments to provide essential services. As the scope of digital innovation expands around the continent, so must national and regional priorities and policies align to facilitate greater competitiveness, inclusiveness all while respecting online freedoms and digital rights.
This panel discussion will feature key insights on priority policies and initiatives gleaned from the FIFAfrica pre-event hosted by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). On September 24, CIPE will host a policy roundtable with public, private, and civil society stakeholders from across the continent to discuss regional opportunities for inclusive economic and entrepreneurial development in an increasingly digital future. Topics from the policy roundtable include: data flows and privacy, eCommerce and eTrade, e-payments and financial inclusion, and the future of entrepreneurship.
Following FIFAfrica, proposed initiatives and policies identified in the policy roundtable discussions and in this panel will be shared with the digital rights community and the public.
Moderator: Louisa Tomar, Global Program Officer, CIPE

  • Peter Mwencha | Africa eTrade Group, Kenya
  • Representative | CIPESA
  • Grace Githaiga | KICTANet, Kenya
  • Representative | MINT, Ethiopia

Follow the conversation using #FIFAfrica19 and #InternetFreedomAfrica.

End of Politeness: African Feminist Movements and Digital Voice

FIFAfrica19 |
Feminism movements online face audience aggression and are often misunderstood. Nonetheless, in recent years, the voice and presence of African feminists online is growing and reinforcing decades long offline efforts aimed at shifting norms, perceptions and power tilted against women and vulnerable communities. As such, growing feminist movements are contributing to narratives which previously did not feature much in mainstream media and in online spaces.
One rising player in these movements is AfricanFeminism.Com which is an online collective of feminist writers from across the continent who are documenting the struggles and achievements of women and other minorities while also amplifying the work of feminists on the continent. Since its origins in 2011, the site has grown to become a channel for driving feminist narratives in online spaces in Africa. These are in turn contributing to debates on issues such as women representation and inclusion, cyber-violence against women and other human rights.
This year, AfricanFeminism.Com will assemble actors in the African feminist movement at the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2019 (FIFAfrica19). In a session titled “End of Politeness: African Feminist Movements and Digital Voice”, the collective will illustrate how the current pan-African feminism movement is thriving on access to technologies that earlier generations did not have, to advance women’s right to self-expression and access to information.
The session will bring experiences and lessons from across the continent on how feminist movements are being defined and the online backlash that many young women have to face in order to make themselves heard. The African experience of internet freedom greatly mimics freedoms offline including through the gender divide, literacy, economics and even politics. This session will show trends of how African feminist online communities are pushing for greater equity and equality including through various forms of advocacy such as the radical expression of Uganda’s Dr Stella Nyanzi.
Moderator: Rosebell Kagumire | Editor,

  • Nana Akosua Hanson | Director, Drama Queens Ghana
  • Beatrice Mateyo | Executive Director, Coalition for the Empowerment of Women and Girls (CEWAG) Malawi
  • Selam Mussie | Media and Communications Consultant, Ethiopia
  • Lugain Mahmoud | Activist, Fifty (Women Representation) Campaign, Sudan
  • Jeanne Elone | Human Rights & Social Impact, Africa Public Policy, Facebook

Follow the conversation using #FIFAfrica19 and #InternetFreedomAfrica.