Training webinar on Internet Universality Indicators convened for African Countries

By Juliet Nanfuka |

On 26 October, the International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) convened a regional training webinar to raise awareness of the Internet Universality ROAM-X indicators and their potential to promote Internet development to advance media freedom and digital rights in Africa. ), The UNESCO Information for All Programme (IFAP) and International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) jointly supported the training.

Present at the meeting were PROTEGE QV (Cameroon), Youth Net and Counselling, YONECO (Malawi), namTshuwe (Namibia), Digital Shelter (Somalia), and CIPESA (Uganda). Each partner presented the state of digital rights in their respective country as a foundation for discussing the ROAM-X indicators with Malawi and Somalia hosting physical convenings. 

In her opening remarks, Dorothy Gordon, Chair of UNESCO’s IFAP stated: “There is a need to take control of the digitally mediated future and understand the impact of policies on our digital environments: the ROAM-X indicators give stakeholders factual tools to discuss and advocate for the future we want to see in Africa.”  

Xianhong Hu, UNESCO’s Programme Specialist  representing IFAP Secretariat, unpacked the 303 the Internet Universality ROAM-X indicators and elaborated on the eight-step multi-stakeholder methodology of conducting national assessments. She highlighted that the unique value of applying ROAM-X indicators is to improve national digital ecosystems and foster cross-border and cross-jurisdictional digital collaboration. 

UNESCO encouraged more African countries to pursue a ROAM-X assessment as a tool to evaluate the ever-changing developments in technology, reverse the digital divide, and to harness digital transformation. Given the launch of the Namibian national assessment and the follow-up ROAM-X assessment in Kenya, as well as the monitoring of new developments following the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2022 national elections, incorporating ROMA-X assessment is critical.

UNESCO and CIPESA jointly reaffirmed the need for increased mobilization using the multistakeholder approach to ensure an open and inclusive implementation process and to scale up Internet development in African countries over the next two years. 

Participants urged UNESCO to continue its support in organising more capacity-building activities to meet the growing demand to assess ROAM-X indicators in African countries.  

All participants were invited to continue their engagement with UNESCO and attend its events  on the ROAM-X indicators : the Day-0 pre-event and Dynamic Coalition session to be held at the December 2022 Internet Governance Forum (IGF), in  Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2022: The Rise of Biometric Surveillance

FIFAfrica22 |

Digital biometric data collection programmes are becoming increasingly popular across the African continent. Governments are investing in diverse digital programmes to enable the capture of biometric information of their citizens for various purposes.

A new report by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) documents the emerging and current trends in biometric data collection and processing in Africa. It focuses on the deployment of national biometric technology-based programmes in 16 African countries, namely Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zambia.

The report published today is the ninth consecutive one issued by CIPESA since 2014 under the State of Internet Freedom in Africa series. It was released at the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica), which is taking place in Lusaka, Zambia.

The biometric data collection programmes reviewed by the report include those related to civil registrations, such as the issuance of National Identity cards, biometric voter registration and identification programmes, government-led CCTV programmes with facial recognition capabilities, national ePassport initiatives, refugees’ registration, and mandatory biometric SIM card registration.

The report highlights the key trends, potential risks, challenges and gaps relating to biometric data collection projects in the continent. These include limited public engagement and awareness campaigns; inadequate legal frameworks that heighten risks to privacy; exclusion from accessing essential services; enhanced surveillance, profiling and targeting; conflicting interests and the wide powers of third parties; and limited capacity and training. 

Consequently, the study notes that these biometric programmes are being implemented in countries with poor digital rights records, declining democracy and rising digital authoritarianism, which casts doubt on the integrity of biometric data collection programmes and the resultant databases. Thus, viewed collectively, the developments, trends and risks outlined in the report heighten concern over the growing threats to the right to privacy of personal data and potential violations of digital rights on the continent. 

Finally, the report presents recommendations to various stakeholders including the government, civil society, the media, the private sector and academia, which, if implemented, will go a long way in addressing data protection and privacy gaps, risks and challenges in the study countries. 

The key recommendations include a call to:

  • Governments to implement the laws and policy frameworks on identity systems and data protection and privacy while paying keen attention to compliance with regionally and internationally recognised principles and minimum standards on data protection and privacy for biometric data collection and require the adoption of human rights-based approaches. 
  • Countries without data protection and privacy laws such as Liberia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Tanzania should expedite the process of enacting appropriate data protection laws so as to guarantee the data protection and privacy rights of their citizens. 
  • Governments to ratify the AU Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection (Malabo Convention) to ensure government commitment to regional data protection and privacy as a means to hold them accountable.
  • Governments to establish independent and robust oversight data protection bodies to regulate data and privacy protection including biometric data.
  • Civil society to engage in advocacy and lobby governments to develop, implement and enforce privacy and data protection policies, laws and institutional frameworks that are in compliance with regional and international minimum human rights standards.
  • Civil society to monitor, document and report on the risks, threats, abuses and violations of privacy and human rights associated with biometric data collection programmes, and propose effective solutions to safeguard rights in line with international human rights standards.
  • The media to progressively document and report on initiatives such as advocacy by civil society and other stakeholders to keep track of developments. 
  • The media to conduct investigative journalism to identify and expose privacy violations arising from the implementation of biometric data collection programmes.
  • The private sector to take deliberate efforts to ensure that all their respective biometric data collection programmes and systems are developed implemented and managed in compliance with best practices prescribed by the national, regional and international human rights standards and practices on privacy and data protection, including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
  • The private sector to ensure that they progressively adopt and develop comprehensive internal privacy policies to guide the collection, storing and processing of personal data. 
  • The private sector to take deliberate efforts aimed at involving data subjects in the control and management of their personal data by providing timely information on external requests for information. 
  • Academia to conduct evidence-based research on data protection and privacy including biometrics, highlighting the challenges, risks, benefits and trends in biometric data collection programmes. 

The full State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2022 Report can be accessed here.

Litigating Internet Disruptions in Africa: Lessons from Sudan

By CIPESA Writer |

Internet disruptions continue to be registered across Africa, despite efforts by local and international actors to demonstrate to telecommunications regulators and governments that it is counterproductive to human rights, the economy and democracy to disrupt digital communication networks.

In 2021, up to 12 African countries experienced state-ordered internet disruptions. These included Burkina Faso (November), Chad (February), Republic of Congo (March), eSwatini (June), Ethiopia (various), Niger (February), Nigeria (June), Senegal (March), South Sudan (August), Sudan (June and October), Uganda (January), and Zambia (August).

As internet disruptions have become more prevalent on the continent, strategic litigation against governments that order themand intermediaries, such as telecom operators and internet service providers (ISPs), that effect them, has gained recognition as a push back tool. Strategic litigation can lead to significant legal precedents by publicly uncovering inequalities and highlighting human rights violations, raising awareness, and bringing about reforms in legislation, policy, and practice.

However, as this brief argues, there are several obstacles to the successful litigation of internet disruption cases, including weaknesses among groups and individuals that submit applications, and case backlogs that impede timely adjudication of cases. Indeed, few cases of strategic litigation on internet disruptions have succeeded. Cases in Cameroon, Chad, and Uganda have been dismissed. In Zimbabwe, while the court in 2019 declared that an internet shutdown ordered during protests that year was illegal, the case was decided on procedural grounds without addressing the litigants’ grounds, such as rights violations due to the shutdown.

A notable progressive decision was the June 2020 ruling by the court of justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which held that an internet shutdown ordered by the Togolese government during protests in 2017 was unlawful and violated the applicant’s right to freedom of expression. The court also ordered the Togolese government to pay two million CFA francs (USD 3,400) compensation to the applicants for the violation of their rights.

Litigating against shutdowns in Sudan

Perhaps more than any other African country, Sudan has made legal precedents arising from litigation against disruptions. Of note too, is that Sudan is only perhaps rivalled by Ethiopia in the number of shutdowns it has experienced in the last three years. Since 2019, the north African country has experienced six internet disruptions.

Former president Omar al-Bashir’s regime initiated internet disruptions during public protests calling for his overthrow, but the government that succeeded him has been more prolific in utilising shutdowns in response to criticism and protests. The longest disruption was recorded in 2019 and lasted 37 days, during which the country lost an estimated USD 1.9 billion. Over 100 protesters were reportedly killed during the time the shutdown was initiated. The latest shutdown started on October 25, 2021 and lasted 25 days. It was instituted after the military declared a state of emergency in the country and seized control of the government. The shutdown was ended by a court order.

The 2019 and 2021 disruptions were both challenged in court. In June 2019, Sudanese lawyer Abdelazim Hassan lodged a lawsuit against the internet shutdown that had been instituted earlier that month. Within two weeks of filing the case, court on June 23 ordered his service provider, Zain, to restore his internet service, which the ISP promptly did. However, service was only restored for the litigant’s SIM card, with the block on access maintained for the rest of Zain’s customers. This was because Hassan had filed the case in a personal capacity as a Zain customer.

Hassan then launched a class action suit, and on July 9, 2019 the court ordered MTN, Sudani and Zain to restore services for all their customers. The telecom providers complied promptly. In September 2019, court ordered Sudani and MTN to apologise to customers for disrupting access to their networks at the behest of the military authorities in June of that year.

Another win for litigants against internet disruptions came on November 11, 2021, when the general court of Khartoum ordered ISPs to restore internet services to all subscribers in response to a lawsuit raised by the Sudanese Consumer Protection Organisation. On the same day, the Telecommunication and Post Regulatory Authority (TPRA) insisted on maintaining the shutdown despite the court order, citing “national security” and a “State of Emergency” as justification. The authority argued that it was necessary to maintain the shutdown as ordered by “the higher leadership”, provided the state of emergency and threats to national security persisted.

The TPRA decision declining to restore internet connectivity cited article 6(j) and article 7(1) and article 7(2)(a) of the law of TPRA of 2018. Article 6(j) provides that one of TPRA’s mandate is “protecting the national security and the higher interests of Sudan in the field of Telecommunication, Post and ICT”. Articles 7(1) and 7(2)(a) state that among the powers of the TPRA is to protect the state’s obligations and requirements in the field of national security and defence, and national, regional and international policies, in coordination with the competent authorities and licensees.

The judge dismissed that argument and issued an arrest warrant for the chief executive officers of the telecom companies for not restoring internet access. On November 18, 2021, the telecom companies restored internet access for all subscribers. The various restoration orders and arrest warrants bring to four the key decisions taken by courts in Sudan that held the regulator, ISPs and the government to account. Further, unlike the Togo case which was adjudicated in the aftermath of the disruption, in Sudan the court issued orders during the disruption and brought it to an end.

Lessons from Sudan’s experience

  • Leaders of telecom companies can and should be held individually liable for actions of their companies. In Sudan’s case, an arrest warrant against leaders of telecom companies yielded compliance with a restoration order in spite of the telecom regulator’s directive to maintain the shutdown.
  • Powers of telecom regulators, who often cite vague grounds of national security in ordering disruptions, can be challenged in court even if the regulators cite the law in ordering an internet disruption.
  • It is essential for courts of law to adjudicate swiftly on internet shutdown cases. In Sudan’s case, it took two weeks of filing a case for court to order restoration of service to the litigant. In another two weeks, the court had ordered service providers to restore services to all customers.
  • Litigation’s target actions and actors need to be well-defined. Sudan has lessons on litigation that benefits individuals and others that benefit groups of users. Further, the targets of litigation action are varied, to include the regulator, a particular ISP or all ISPs, and other state bodies.
  • Intermediaries have appeared helpless in the face of government orders and have acquiesced to government orders even when their lawfulness is questionable. Holding them liable for losses to customers, such as the order by the Sudanese court that they apologise to customers, could make them think twice before implementing shutdown directives.

Apply for Data Driven Advocacy Sketchathon at FIFAfrica21

Call for Applications |

Do you want to use data for advocacy but you’re not sure where to start? Would you like to transform statistics into compelling stories? Are you passionate about a digital rights cause, and want to convince others to join your efforts?

In the lead up to the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2021 (FIFAfrica21), the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and Data4Change will host a virtual data sketchathon and series of critical discussions to get you thinking more about how to use data in digital rights advocacy. The sketchathon will take place on Monday 27 September 2021.

The schedule
Starting at 10am East African Time (EAT) and finishing at 5pm EAT, the sketchathon will entail a combination of live Zoom sessions and self-paced activities.

We’ll use the answers in your application forms to set an agenda for the group discussions as we explore themes like: data biases; representation, accessibility and ownership of data; and data inequalities. You’ll also have an opportunity to work in small groups to map your data advocacy aspirations and to tackle some of the data questions you’re grappling with as individuals or organisations.

Participants will also have an opportunity to create a data design using data from the #KeepItOn campaign Shutdown Tracker Optimisation Project.

Who should apply
There are no prerequisites, and literally anybody can apply. We are looking for people who are passionate about uncovering the potential of using numbers to drive forward emotive stories that have the power to advance digital rights preferably in Lesotho, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

A limited number of spaces are available for the workshop. We endeavour to create diverse and collaborative spaces and to foster a sense of community that lasts beyond the event and will strive to create a balanced representation of different geographies, abilities, and approaches among participants.

How to apply
Submit this form before 18.00 East African Time on Wednesday September 22, 2021.

Successful applicants will be notified by Friday September 24, 2021. A modest reimbursement will be provided for participants’ connectivity costs.

Charting the Link Between Disinformation, Disruptions, Diseases and the Diaspora in Cameroon and DR Congo

By Richard Ngamita |

Disinformation on social media has been a growing concern in global politics for several years, and it is now exploding across Sub-Saharan Africa, where social media-based disinformation campaigns are increasingly being deployed by foreign entities and governments  to influence narratives.

Several socio-political and economic factors provide fertile ground for disinformation to thrive in African countries. The exploding youth population – with many coming online for the first time through social media – growth in the use and availability of internet-enabled mobile phones, ethno-religious conflicts, and insecurity are some of the factors that have contributed to the large amount of information accessible via digital media and provided new, fast-moving channels for spreading and amplifying false information.

This growth in disinformation in the region has presented a new stress test for emerging internet policy and legislative responses. For instance, in March 2020, Ethiopia enacted the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation to address hate speech and disinformation, which have historically troubled the country. However, it has been argued that whereas government regulation is legitimate to control hate speech, Ethiopia’s new law poses a threat to freedom of expression and access to information online.

In Cameroon, under the Law Relating to Cyber Security and Cyber Criminality, it is an offense to publish and propagate information online “without being able to attest its veracity” or truthfulness. In a July 2020 press conference, Cameroon’s Communication Minister, René Emmanuel Sadi, expressed concerns over “irresponsible” use of social media to tarnish the image of public officials or sabotage government actions and warned that those who continued to propagate such information on social media platforms would face the heavy arm of the law.

Other countries like Zimbabwe and Tanzania have broader media laws that have been used to target fake news. The various laws have been criticised for posing a threat to digital rights, especially when deployed as tools against critical opinion, the media, and dissent in African countries with democratic deficits.

Many African countries, including Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), continue to grapple with disinformation, with a high risk of online activity resulting in offline harm. This report reviews the situation in these countries, where – despite relatively low connectivity levels – disinformation presents a considerable concern.

As of 2017, Cameroon had  19.7 million mobile phone subscribers  representing a penetration rate of 85%, while internet penetration was 35.6%. Meanwhile, as of December 2019, the DR Congo had an internet penetration rate of 19.2%, while mobile phone penetration was 42%.

Conflict Awareness and Disinformation

Citizens in Cameroon and the DR Congo rely on a wide range of traditional sources of information (including print and broadcast media), alongside online sources to keep abreast of social, economic and political issues. However, social media has come to play an increasing role on issues related to conflict because mainstream media is censored by their governments.

In Cameroon, tensions between Anglophone and Francophone regions date back to the country’s independence in 1961. Over the years, there have been fatal violence and protest action against the continued “francophonisation” and marginalisation of English speakers who say that the central government privileges the majority French-speaking population.

In 2015, a video showing two women and two children being shot dead by soldiers in the Far North town of Zelevet started to circulate on social media. According to a July 2018 BBC Africa Eye investigation, the government initially dismissed the video as fake news. However, Amnesty International revealed credible evidence that the Cameroon military was responsible, prompting the authorities to retract and state that the 10 soldiers depicted in the video had been arrested and would be prosecuted. Five years after the incident, a military court convicted and sentenced the soldiers to imprisonment.

Whereas the BBC Africa Eye investigation into the shooting incident revealed that several people did not like to spread hate speech and graphic violence content online, sometimes they recognised that such content could include safety information, especially for those who live in conflict areas.

cameroon
Source: Twitter

In the DR Congo, a history of armed conflict has left millions dead and the country destabilised, with continued violence perpetrated by several armed groups active in the region, including the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and numerous militias. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo (MONUSCO) has operated in the region since 1999 and is the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world.

During the 2018 elections that had been long awaited, there were reports of widespread election irregularities, with competing political parties claiming to be in the lead as several unofficial tallies started to circulate on social media. Sponsored content from Google and Facebook falsely alleged that former President Joseph Kabila’s surrogate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, had won the elections. The ads were published before the official results announcement by the Electoral Commission, which had been delayed. There were internet shutdowns in key cities, which made it even harder for fact checkers to verify any information related to the elections.

RDC
Source : Twitter

Considering the elections had been postponed from November 2016 to December 2017, and then to April 2018, the circulation of false election results could have prolonged the cycle of instability.

 Role of the Diaspora Community

The diaspora community is a huge contributor to the inflaming of tensions online in both countries, often through fake accounts that regularly share hateful and inciting content against rival political factions.

During the 2018 elections in Cameroon, there were several instances of social media posts from the diaspora claiming that long-serving President Paul Biya had died. Biya went on to win the disputed elections, and two years on, social media content, often from the diaspora, continues to fuel political and ethnic tensions.

Cameroon
Source:  Facebook

With the conflict in Anglophone regions leading to calls for a break-away state and separatists actively seeking support from the Cameroonian diaspora, there is an ongoing risk that online content that depicts the Cameroonian government as repressive and violent could result in offline harm.

Source
Source: Facebook

As for the social media posts falsely claiming that Shadary had won the 2018 presidential election in DR Congo, considering the internet disruption at the time, indications are that the perpetrators of the sponsored ads and admins of the accounts in question were based in the diaspora. Lumumba aime LE CONGO (Lumumba loves Congo), which was among the key propagators of the ads, had been created just before the elections and traded on the likeness of Patrice Lumumba, a famous independence leader. Besides content claiming victory for Shadary, the page also shared posts from several fake domains or news aggregation websites like CongoActu24.com. This was another example in which disinformation had the potential to lead to offline harms within a fragile political environment.

Congo

Pandemics

Like in other African countries, Cameroon and DR Congo have seen a surge in Covid-19 disinformation online, some of it pegged on cultural, political and religious sensitivities including promotion of herbal remedies, steaming, alcohol, contradictory and speculative reports about treatments and/or confusing guidance about standard operating procedures (SOPs).

The spread of disinformation around diseases can be a public health risk, as has been the case in Cameroon and the DR Congo regarding Ebola and, more recently, Covid-19. Disease disinformation undermines confidence in underlying science, slows down sensitisation, politicises health activities and questions the motives of health officials.

DR Congo is no novice to pandemics, having borne the brunt of the Ebola outbreak between 2017 and  2019. In May 2020, France 24 News reported a Covid-19 fake news campaign in DR Congo. The France 24 reports were later corroborated by Facebook and DFRLab, which linked the network to a politician called Honore Mvula. The network carried several Covid-19 false claims attributed to public figures including French infectious disease expert Didier Raoult, French president Emmanuel Macron and Madagascar president Andry Rajoelina and these made rounds on Congolese Facebook pages, recording a high rate of engagement. Mvula denied the allegations against him. Facebook took down the pages.

FFRDC

Internet Disruption

Cameroon and DR Congo have a history of ordering internet disruptions on multiple occasions during public protests and elections. In January 2017, internet connectivity was restricted in the Anglophone region of Cameroon following dissent and calls for succession from the Francophone region. The disruption, which lasted for over 230 days until March 2018 is recorded as the longest internet shutdown on the continent.

Similarly, in the DR Congo, instability in the country has been continuously characterised by persistent internet shutdowns since December 2011. Following a relatively peaceful voting day on December 30, 2018, the government shut down the internet on December 31 and progressively, broadcast  media, and expelled some international journalists reporting on the elections. The official reasons provided by policymakers were “to avoid fake results from circulating”.

According to analysts, the internet shutdown in Cameroon cost the economy USD 1.67 million per day, while the shutdown in DR Congo  cost the economy USD 3 million per day.

Net block
Source: Twitter

Internet shutdowns during elections are a common and growing trend of digital repression especially in authoritarian countries in Africa, whose leaders have been in power for many years. When governments impose information blackouts or curtail the free flow of information online through other means, disinformation thrives as fact-checking and the production of counter-narratives are hampered. In the case of Cameroon and DR Congo, that disinformation, much of it originating from the diaspora, propagates hate speech and disinformation that threaten to exacerbate civil strife and undermine electoral integrity. In turn, the shutdowns and the disinformation propagated by state and non-state actors, are eroding technology’s potential to enhance electoral integrity, to civic engagement and the fight against diseases such as Covid-19.

Netblock1
Source: Twitter

Overcoming Disinformation

Accounts of targeted messaging during elections have become common, and they are particularly concerning as the content of the messages is often misleading, out-rightly false, or inciting. This recent rise of online campaigning through social media platforms has thus raised further concerns about how the required data is obtained, the extent to which African democracies are vulnerable to foreign interference, the ways in which social media algorithms are prone to manipulation, and the ethics of using African countries as a testing ground for new digital technologies.

Whereas efforts to legislate against disinformation are human rights pressure points, alternative countermeasures, in collaboration with social media platform operators, hold some promise. In 2020, several sub Saharan African governments partnered with social media platforms and other intermediaries to fight Covid-19 disinformation. Earlier in 2018, Cameroon directly engaged with Facebook to explore opportunities for fighting the spread of false and misleading information within the country. Meanwhile, promoting digital literacy skills and fact checking capacity, and creating awareness about what is unacceptable content on platforms and how to report objectionable content, remain key needed actions. Hence efforts and other measures to combat disinformation and other harmful content, including around elections and in the fight against Covid-19, require closer collaboration between governments, civil society and platforms than we have witnessed this far.

Richard Ngamita is a Data Researcher who currently works on human rights, disinformation and espionage. He previously worked at Google with the Spam team. He has also led investigative research across health, agriculture and refugee movements.