Is the future of the internet in Africa fractured?

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

Towards an African Declaration on Internet Rights

As internet usage continues to grow in Africa, so does the interest by governments to monitor users’ online activities. This has led to a clash between internet rights promoters and governments in some African countries.
On February 12–13, 2014, participants from several African civil society organisations involved in promoting human rights and internet rights convened in Johannesburg, South Africa to draft an African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms. The meeting was organised by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and Global Partners Digital in collaboration with the Media Rights Agenda, Media Foundation for West Africa and the Kenya Human Rights Commission.
Many countries justify their tough stance on internet freedom as necessary to fight cybercrime, promote peace and maintain national security. Whereas some of these policies and practices have been adopted by authoritarian regimes to retain power, others were in response to national crisis contexts such as hate speech and terrorism. Ultimately, the measures have often had chilling effects on access to information, freedom of expression, privacy and data protection.
Participants in this meeting called for the promotion of an open, free and accessible internet. Issues identified as the most crucial and still hindering internet growth in Africa that need immediate action were: improving access to internet including the development and promotion of localised multi-lingual content; addressing internet infrastructure obstacles; capacity building for users; and the need to create a balance between freedom of expression and privacy of users.
Others identified were data protection, addressing gender inequalities and gender-based violence against women online, and adopting supportive ICT policies that promote freedom of expression online and equitable access to information.
Due to increased internet freedom violation incidents coupled with regressive policies being made in many countries, the need for a well-defined Internet Intermediary Liability (ILL) regime has also become increasingly apparent. Another meeting held on February 10-11, 2014 organised by the APC with support from Google Africa discussed the responsibility that may be placed on intermediaries in implementing monitoring and control mechanisms laid down by the laws.
At the regional level, there are legal and regulatory frameworks like the Africa Charter on Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, which provide limited protection for internet rights and the liability of internet intermediaries. It was noted that such frameworks could act as building blocks for individual countries to draw up best practices on ILL regimes.
There was consensus that such existing frameworks should be the basis for adopting a general guide with definitions of terms on Internet intermediary liability. This guide would act as central referencing document on which individual countries would base their national IIL regimes.
During the discussions, participants charted their thoughts on a best practice guide for an IIL regime for Africa by asking the below questions:
While responding to these questions, participants recognised that intermediaries can play a crucial role in promoting Internet freedoms in Africa.
Meanwhile, the meeting also reviewed recent policy and practice developments in Uganda, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria since the 2011 Intermediary Liability in Africa research. It identified a need to increase awareness among different stakeholder groups of the importance of clear regulatory frameworks for intermediary liability to secure rights on the internet; and for stronger collaboration to advocate for best practice internet intermediary regulatory measures in Africa.
The outcomes of both these meetings will form the basis for the draft civil society Africa Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms, which will be launched at the ninth global Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Istanbul, Turkey September 2-5, 2014. The declaration will be available for public input throughout the period leading up to IGF 2014.

Who controls the Internet? Final statement of the Pan African Civil Society Workshop

Final Statement of the Pan African Civil Society Workshop on Who Controls the Internet? Held in Nairobi, 26-27 July, 2012
We, participants comprising representatives of diverse civil society organizations from the human rights, media and ICT policy sectors, meeting at the Pan African Civil Society Workshop on “Who Controls the Internet” held in Nairobi, Kenya, on July 26 and 27, 2012:

  • Affirm the importance of the Internet as an enabling medium for democratisation and the promotion, exercise and enjoyment of human rights;
  • Recognize that the ability to access and use the Internet has become inextricably linked to the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, as enshrined in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights , and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights .
  • Stress the capacity and potential of the Internet to contribute to social, economic, cultural and human development;
  • Express strong support for the report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion on the right to freedom of opinion and expression exercised through the Internet presented in June 2011 to the Human Rights Council (HRC) and HRC Resolution A/HRC/20/L.13 of July 5, 2012 on “the Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet” which affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online;
  • Welcome the establishment in 2011 of the African Platform for Access to Information and the Freedom Online Coalition ;
  • Affirm that multi-stakeholder governance of the Internet at the national, regional and international levels founded on the guiding values of fundamental human rights and the public interest is essential for the effectiveness and legitimacy of Internet governance;
  • Note that current Internet governance arrangements as well as recent proposals for global Internet governance reform from some governments and discussed in various intergovernmental forums do not adequately address civil society participation.

We call upon African States:

  • To promote and facilitate affordable and equitable access to the Internet;
  • To review and repeal policies, regulations, legislation and practices that are restrictive or inconsistent with regional and international human rights standards and that interfere with freedom of expression, association and assembly on the Internet;
  • To prioritise the application of UN Human Rights Council Resolution (A/HRC/20/L.13, July 5, 2012) which “affirms the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”;
  • To guarantee that all Internet-related policies, regulations and legislation are developed within a framework which ensures the inclusion and full participation of all stakeholders, particularly civil society;
  • That those who have not yet done so to endorse the African Platform on Access to Information (APAI) and apply the principles contained in the APAI Declaration to advance the right to Access to Information in all its dimensions, nationally, regionally, and internationally on the African continent;
  • To apply the UN Principles on Business and Human Rights , also known as the “Ruggie Principles”, in their interaction with and regulation of the Internet and telecommunications industry.

We call upon the African Union and regional bodies:

  • To strengthen its support of and collaboration with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, particularly with the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information;
  • To facilitate in partnership with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights the implementation of regional and international human rights standards in relation to the Internet as enshrined in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, among others instruments;
  • To encourage the expansion and effective implementation of African initiatives to extend the right to information, such as the African Platform on Access to Information.

We call upon all global governance institutions, inter-governmental organizations and standard setting bodies that deal with Internet-related issues:

  • To facilitate the effective and continuous participation of civil society in all their decision-making processes;
  • To ensure transparency of and access to information related to these decision-making processes;
  • In particular, we call on the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in the process of discussions reviewing of the International Telecommunications Regulations to ensure and facilitate the involvement of civil society and make relevant information publicly available in the process leading up the World Conference on International Telecommunications.
  • We call on Internet and telecommunications companies:*
  • To provide, fair, affordable and equitable access to telecommunications services and the Internet;
  • To adhere to the UN Principles on Business and Human Rights, also known as the Ruggie Principles.

We call on Civil Society Organizations:

  • To recognize the importance of freedom of expression, association and assembly on the Internet as an essential element of their work and mandate;
  • To participate actively in Internet related policy and governance issues at national, regional and international levels;
  • To work together in Africa and globally to ensure that Governments and industry are accountable in upholding freedom of expression, association and information on the Internet.

Signed by:
African ICT Consumers Network
Article 19, East Africa
Association for Progressive Communications
Commission for Human Rights and Good Governance
Global Partners & Associates
Human Rights Watch
ICT Consumers Association of Kenya
Kenya Human Rights Commission
Kenya National Commission on Human Rights
Media Foundation for West Africa
Media Rights Agenda
Media, Empowerment and Democracy in East Africa
Social Development Network
Read the full declaration here.