Safeguarding Digital Rights in Africa’s Growing Digital Economy

By Loyce Kyogabire |

Increased digitalisation and adoption of technology in Africa has fuelled the continent’s economy, with commerce and transactions increasingly being conducted online. Innovation and use of web and mobile applications have also encouraged the growth of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, which has advanced financial inclusion and employment, and made the technology sector a key contributor to African countries’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For instance, platforms such as Jumia which is operational in 11 African countries have transformed the retail, travel and food markets. Other notable online platforms include Appruve and Esoko (Ghana), mFarm (Kenya) and Novus Agro (Nigeria).

African governments have prioritised the integration of technology into more sectors to drive social and economic transformation. However, the rapid adoption of technology tools and platforms has also been met with growing concerns about the impact on digital rights, including data protection and privacy, the digital divide, freedom of expression and surveillance. Other worrying trends include network disruptions, digital taxation, data localisation requirements, and encryption regulations. There is a growing consensus among digital rights advocates that the adoption of technology tools and policies impacting the digital space should not only advance economic inclusion, but also be carefully assessed and implemented in a way that respects human rights in the digital age.

According to a GSMA report, in 2020, “mobile technologies and services generated more than USD 130 billion of economic value” while USD 155 billion is projected to be generated by 2025. The report further says that “495 million people subscribed to mobile services in Sub-Saharan Africa” by the end of 2020, representing 46% of the region’s population, and this is expected to increase to around 615 million subscribers by 2025, reaching the mark of 50% of Africa’s population.

In an effort to advance digital rights across Africa’s growing digital economy, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) through the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF) has worked to support advocacy initiatives, skills development, and movement building to effectively influence policy and practice on digital rights and the digital economy. Efforts by the ADRF grantees have engaged with state and non-state actors, providing replicable insights into how governments and the private sector in the region can safeguard digital rights while advancing the digital economy.

In Ghana, the Financial Inclusion Forum Africa developed a Data Protection and Privacy Policy to serve as an internal guide on how digital financial service providers in the country should collect, store, and process individuals’ data. The policy outlines principles on the management of personal data in compliance with Ghana’s Data Protection Act 2012 and the International Organization for Standardization and International Electrotechnical Commission Standards for Information Security Management – ISO 27001:2013. The policy benefited from reviews and input from leading digital financial service providers such as Appruve, Jumo, Vodaphone Cash, and G Money, alongside industry experts and regulators such as the eCrime Bureau, RegTheory, and CUTS (Consumer Unit and Trust Society) Ghana. This provided insights into the policy’s viability and applicability by tapping on real-life experiences of these service providers.

Similarly, the Centre for International Trade, Economics and Environment (CUTS) and Mzalendo Trust have worked to advance consumer protection, security and inclusion, and public awareness within the digital economy in Kenya. The two Kenya-based grantees engaged with stakeholders such as the Capital Markets Authority, Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet), Association of Freelance Journalists, Open Institute, The Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law (CIPIT) at Strathmore University, Article 19, County Assemblies Forum, Internews, and the Election Observation Group (ELOG).

In Mozambique, efforts by the Mozambican Disabled Persons’ Organisation Forum (FAMOD) under ADRF focused on accessibility and compliance assessments of online services, including for employment, telecommunications, and revenue collection. These assessments helped identify key areas where advocacy campaigns for digital inclusion of persons with disabilities would be most impactful. Meanwhile, in an effort to promote women’s safety and participation online in Namibia, the local chapter of the Internet Society (ISOC) conducted policy engagements on the protection of women and girls as part of the Data Protection Bill.

In Somalia, the work of Digital Shelter made significant breakthroughs in stakeholder dialogue and engagement on aspects of digitalisation that previously have not been prioritised or discussed regularly. Engagements, including in partnership with the Institute of Innovation, Technology & Entrepreneurship (IITE), the ICT and e-Governance Department in Ministry Communications and Technology, the private sector and activists, have focused on youth skilling, digital empowerment, data protection and privacy, and an open and inclusive internet.

Finally, ADRF grantee, Alt Advisory, recently published research on a rights-based assessment of Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications in South Africa. The research involved inputs from 14 leading companies in the country’s financial services, retail and e-commerce sectors and two government bodies – the Home Affairs Department and the Department of Health. The findings of the study indicated human rights gaps in AI profiling and the need to bolster compliance with rights guarantees under relevant laws and policies and enforcement by the country’s data protection watchdog, the Information Regulator, and other regulatory bodies.

The ADRF grantees’ interventions in Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Somalia, and South Africa highlight the value of evidence-based advocacy that informs multi-stakeholder deliberations on the digital economy and digital rights. Together with the work of the broader ADRF cohort, it presents key lessons on digitalisation in Africa and the need for operationalisation of supporting frameworks such as for cyber security, data protection and privacy; increased participation of minority and marginalised groups in the design of initiatives; multi-stakeholder collaboration; harmonisation of national and local government plans; and digital literacy skills building.

To learn more about the ADRF programme, please visit https://cipesa.org/the-africa-digital-rights-fund-english/.

Countering Digital Authoritarianism in Africa

By Apolo Kakaire |

The Internet which is viewed as the panacea for democracy, participation and inclusion is increasingly becoming a tool of repression deployed by regimes across the world to stifle rights and voice.  Africa, a continent already replete with poor democratic credentials and practices seems to be rapidly catching up on the new ‘epidemic’- digital authoritarianism.

The use of technology tactics to advance repressive political interests has come to be  referred to as digital authoritarianism. However, the tactics employed by authoritarian regimes have also been deployed by democratic states for purposes of surveillance, spread of misinformation, disinformation, and the disruption of civic and political participation under the pretext of fighting cybercrime, and in the interest of protecting national security, and maintaining public order.

Big technology companies are key drivers of digital authoritarianism through the creation, innovation and supply of repressive technology and related support. Moreover, political parties, interest groups, and smaller private companies have lapped it up too, developing and using tools and strategies of digital authoritarianism.

Digital authoritarianism is a great case study in understanding and appreciating the impact of technology on human rights. While laws legalising surveillance and interception of communications, and widespread data collection and processing may not be a problem in themselves, it is the ambiguity often present within those laws that give governments wide latitude of interpretation to facilitate the rights abuse that is a growing challenge.

At the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2022 (FIFAfrica22), Global Voices Advox, shared findings from the Unfreedom Monitor– a project exploring the political and social context that fuels the emergence of digital authoritarianism in 17 countries. They hosted a panel discussion in which project researchers from India, Nigeria, Sudan and Zimbabwe presented the project findings on the connections between political contexts, analogue rights, and the growing use of digital communications technology to advance authoritarian governance.

The findings paint a grim picture for  freedom of the media, expression, and democracy in general. In Zimbabwe for instance, the Unfreedom Monitor report notes that; “the press walks a precarious line between national security and the professional obligation to report truthfully” on issues that happen in the country. It is an observation that is replicated in the mapping conducted in Morocco, Egypt, and Tanzania 

In Sudan, where internet censorship, bad laws and repressed liberties and network disruptions are commonplace, Khattab Hamad noted that the contours and motives of digital authoritarianism include fear of losing power, protecting the existence of regional or international alliances, and geopolitical motives protecting private and family interests. He added that terrorism and support for terrorist groups was another motive for authoritarianism in the country. 

In Tanzania, researchers found that often, laws are enacted as precursors to enable various methods of digital authoritarianism. For example, the Cybercrime Act which was hurriedly enacted just months before the October 2015 elections. “There were many other such laws, including the amendments to the Non-Governmental Orgnaisations (NGO) Act, that saw NGOs being deregistered and control on them tightened in the lead up to the 2020 elections”, they revealed.

In Uganda, network disruptions in the run up to and during recent elections is another example of digital authoritarianism. “Sometimes the internet is restored after elections. So, the question is what exactly is the purpose? What are you hiding? Why do you deny your people access to information? Internet shutdowns also question the credibility of elections”, said Felicia Anthonio of Access Now. She added that network disruptions affect engagement between voters and political candidates, in addition to limiting  electoral oversight and monitoring by human rights activists and election observers. 

As part of the Unfreedom Monitor project, Global Voices Advox has established a publicly available database on digital authoritarianism to support advocacy in light of the “urgency of a fast deteriorating situation”, said Sindhuri Nandhakumar, a researcher  with the project. 

While applauding the research and database in supporting evidence-based advocacy, digital rights activists at FIFAfrica22 noted that given the behaviour of authoritarian regimes, advocacy at the national level may be met with a lot of resistance. As such, more engagement was called for  through special mandates and periodic human rights review mechanisms at the African Union (AU) and the United Nations Human Rights Council.   

“Advocacy [against digital authoritarianism] at national level will be difficult. Positive results could be registered through Special rapporteurs at the AU and states through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), towards securing accountability”, said Arsene Tungali from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

For African digital rights activists, the Global Voices Advox research and database unravels new  avenues for collaborative advocacy and transnational opportunities for interventions to stem this spread of digital authoritarianism. The findings however also point at the need for a concerted and robust response to its growing traction.

As elections in Africa remain a major flashing point for digital authoritarianism as all manner of manipulation of voters, narratives, even results abound, it remains a key area of transnational cooperation. Ahead of the elections in Zimbabwe, slated for July-August 2023, Advox will come up with tips on awareness raising on voter rights and the role of technology in elections. Zimbabwe provides a good opportunity to pilot, learn and perhaps adopt some interventions to counter this behemoth.

New Law in Uganda Imposes Restrictions on Use of Internet

By Rodney Muhumuza |

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has signed into law legislation criminalizing some internet activity despite concerns the law could be used to silence legitimate criticism.

The bill, passed by the legislature in September, was brought by a lawmaker who said it was necessary to punish those who hide behind computers to hurt others. That lawmaker argued in his bill that the “enjoyment of the right to privacy is being affected by the abuse of online and social media platforms through the sharing of unsolicited, false, malicious, hateful and unwarranted information.”

The new legislation increases restrictions in a controversial 2011 law on the misuse of a computer. Museveni signed the bill on Thursday, according to a presidential spokesman’s statement.

The legislation proposes jail terms of up to 10 years in some cases, including for offenses related to the transmission of information about a person without their consent as well as the sharing or intercepting of information without authorization.
Opponents of the law say it will stifle freedom of expression in a country where many of Museveni’s opponents, for years unable to stage street protests, often raise their concerns on Twitter and other online sites.
Others say it will kill investigative journalism.

The law is “a blow to online civil liberties in Uganda,” according to an analysis by a watchdog group known as Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa, or CIPESA.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is among groups that urged Museveni to veto the bill, noting its potential to undermine press freedom.

“Ugandan legislators have taken the wrong turn in attempting to make an already problematic law even worse. If this bill becomes law, it will only add to the arsenal that authorities use to target critical commentators and punish independent media,” the group’s Muthoki Mumo said in a statement after lawmakers passed the bill.

Museveni, 78, has held power in this East African country since 1986 and won his current term last year.

Although Museveni is popular among some Ugandans who praise him for restoring relative peace and economic stability, many of his opponents often describe his rule as authoritarian.

This article was first published by the Washington Post on Oct 13, 2022

Policy Brief: Taxing Ugandan Citizens Out Of The Digital Society

By Edrine Wanyama |

Uganda’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector contributes 9% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and could contribute to the country’s socio-economic transformation through innovation and food security, access to markets such as for agricultural produce, and improved service delivery. However, a new Policy Brief by CIPESA shows that universal, affordable access remains largely unattained due to the high and multiple taxes on digital products and services.

According to the GSMA’s Mobile Connectivity Index, which measures key enablers of mobile internet adoption such as infrastructure, affordability, content and services, Uganda lags behind its neighbours Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. 

According to the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), by September 2021, the country had 29.1 million telephone subscriptions that translate into a national penetration of seven connections for every 10 Ugandans. However, the proportion of Ugandans who actually own or use mobile phones is less than 70% due to multiple SIM card ownership. Internet subscriptions stood at 22 million, or a penetration of 52%, yet the percentage of the population that actually uses the internet is much lower, as many users have multiple subscriptions.

Internet and mobile telephone penetration are still low in Uganda in comparison to  Kenya with 122% internet penetration and 133% mobile penetration, Rwanda with 64.4% internet penetration and 84.2% mobile penetration, and Tanzania with 50% internet penetration and 91% mobile penetration. The average phone subscriber in Uganda spends just UGX 10,500 (about USD 2.8) per month on voice, data and SMS services. This average revenue per user (ARPU) in Uganda is significantly lower than in other African countries.

Uganda levies  a direct 12% levy on the net price of internet data, after which a Value Added Tax (VAT) of 18% applies. There is also a 12% excise duty on prepaid airtime, postpaid airtime, and value added services, as well as a 10% import duty on devices. This multiple taxation translates into high cost of services, devices, hardware and software, with suppliers and service providers passing on the financial burden onto consumers, thereby aggravating the affordability challenge. 

With one of highest mobile data rates in the region, with 1 GB of data costing up to 16.2% of an average Ugandan’s monthly income, digital exclusion has been perpetuated with the groups most excluded from the digital economy being the elderly, rural communities, persons with disabilities , the youth, refugees  and migrants. Indeed,  research has found that Ugandan men are 43% more likely to be online than women. 

Meanwhile, according to the Brief, innovation and e-commerce continue to suffer regression with initiatives such as the National ICT Initiatives Support Programme (NIISP) and Digital Uganda Vision achieving minimal impact. This is because poor internet access hinders knowledge creation and stifles innovation in a world where fintechs, mobile payments and a growing array of e-services and e-trade are getting mainstreamed. Similarly, freedom of expression and access to information continue to be undermined despite consistent calls upon the government by the private sector to government to refrain from blocking access to the internet and some social media sites such as Facebook, a practice that undermines citizens’ access to information and freedom of expression, and which also cripples business operations.

The high and multiple digital taxation in Uganda has greatly undermined the ICT sector’s potential as a driver of socio-economic transformation and perpetuates exclusion. It also means that e-governance, e-services and e-commerce cannot achieve full scale, citizens’ access to information and public participation is undermined, and the innovation ecosystem remains frail.

The Brief  calls upon  the government, civil society and the technology sector to take the following measures for progressive reform in the sector. 

Government

  • Repeal all retrogressive legislation such as the Excise Duty (Amendment) Act of 2021 which provides for a 12% levy on the net price of internet data.
  • Lower the Value Added Tax on ICT services from the current 18% to not more than 12%, and reduce by 50% the import duty on ICT devices as well as the excise duty on airtime and value added services.
  • Undertake measures, such as tax incentives, to lower the cost of assistive technologies like screen readers, text-to-speech software, manual Perkins Brailler, hand-held magnifiers, hand frames/slates and communication boards for persons with disabilities.
  • Refrain from implementing measures that disrupt access to the internet and social media, and if any such measures are taken, they should be absolutely necessary, proportionate and for a very limited period of time.
  • Deliberately undertake measures to expand access and usage of ICT by disadvantaged groups, such as through leveraging the universal service fund (RCDF) to fund connectivity and services, as well as digital literacy programmes for rural dwellers, poor women, and persons with disabilities.

Civil Society

  • Advocate for affordable and inclusive access including through awareness campaigns and building the capacity of grassroots communities to push back against digital exclusion.
  • Engage in public policy consultations and challenge laws such as the Excise Duty (Amendment) Act of 2021 and others that impose an undue tax burden on digital services and devices.
  • Collaborate with government and technology actors in efforts to promote digital literacy and infrastructure sharing among others.
  • Research and document barriers to digital inclusion to form the basis for advocacy and engagement including through human rights review mechanisms 

Technology Sector

  • Comply with universal service obligations through infrastructure sharing and provision of accessible services/subsidies for marginalised communities.
  • Collaborate with civil society in efforts to promote digital literacy and innovation.
  • Engage in public policy consultations and challenge laws such as the Excise Duty (Amendment) Act of 2021 and others that impose an undue tax burden on digital services and devices.

Read the full Brief here

Putting Digital Inclusion Data into Practice

By Prudence Nyamishana |

Trends in global digitalisation have seen strides in the use of technology as an enabler for economic growth, public discourse, service delivery, transparency and accountability, access to education and public health. However, alongside these advancements, there has remained a persistent digital access gap that predominantly affects Sub-Saharan Africa.

Further, it appears that even for those countries in the region with high levels of access to digital technologies, there remain inconsistencies at national level, including in policy formulation and practice, and the business ethics and human rights of mobile network operators, which potentially exacerbate digital exclusion.

According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), global 4G coverage stood at 84% in comparison to 44% in Africa  – the lowest across all regions. 

In 2020, four of Africa’s leading digital companies (Safaricom, Jumia, MTN, and Naspers) were ranked and scored on digital inclusion by the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA)‘s Digital Inclusion Benchmark. These companies have business footprints in more than numerous countries in Africa.

The Digital Inclusion Benchmark results showed that commitment and contribution towards digital inclusion are highly uneven across industries in the digital sector. Clear and consistent support to improve digital skills is needed, especially for vulnerable and underrepresented groups.

These results echoed similar sentiment in the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) Access Denied report, which showed that several telecom companies in Sub-Saharan Africa have failed to meet their obligations to provide information and services to persons with disabilities.

Both the WBA Benchmark and the CIPESA report call for adjustments to how business should be conducted, with a higher priority placed on the often digitally excluded and underrepresented communities such as women and persons with disabilities.

As such, in June 2021, the WBA and CIPESA hosted a roundtable with stakeholders committed to advancing digital inclusion in the region. Additionally, the roundtable sought to help foster coordinated multi-stakeholder actions on digital inclusion that can help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Watch the Africa RoundTable on Digital Inclusion

Speaking at the roundtable, Andrew Rugege, the Africa regional director for the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), noted that Covid-19 had laid bare the realities that underpin global economics and made it evident that broadband and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) play a critical role in daily lives for the overall growth of national economies.

However, Michael Minges, a WBA Research Analyst, highlighted gaps in current internet access policy and structures that affect national economics and also impact digital inclusion and access. He pointed out the issue of scale, noting that many African countries have not yet built up their internet markets to make them attractive for international investors.

Onica Makwakwa, Head of Africa at the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), highlighted the role that state policies and regulations have to play in enabling digital access. She stated: “We need to have policies and regulations that make this [internet access] universal … It requires intentional actions.”

The shift from data to action was stressed by Lourdes Montenegro, the WBA Lead on Digital Sector Transformation, who noted that the data emerging from research initiatives such as by the WBA and CIPESA triggers thinking on what public policy actions are needed, including by think tanks and governments that need to work towards addressing digital inclusion gaps with evidence-backed data.

Indeed, narratives from the roundtable discussion including the need for more stakeholder collaborations were carried through to the September 2021 CIPESA-hosted Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2021 (FIFAfrica). Digital inclusion was one of the themes at FIFAfrica21, and multiple sessions at the Forum entailed discussion on why digital inclusion should be attained including for the benefit of increased public participation, countering misinformation, fighting online violence against women, supporting progressive online movements, and encouraging online diversity especially from the Global South. Thus, as the data in support of digital inclusion grows, so does the need to put this data into practice in policy formation, business strategy and digital rights advocacy.

Watch the different sessions from the Forum.

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