Mauritius’ Social Media Regulation Proposal Centres State-Led Censorship

By Daniel Mwesigwa |

In Sub-Saharan Africa, Mauritius leads in many aspects. It is the only country on the continent categorised as a “full democracy” by the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index for 2020. Additionally, it has the second highest per capita income (USD 11,099) and one of the highest internet penetration rates in the region (72.2%).

However, the recently published consultation paper on proposed amendments to the country’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) law, purportedly aimed at curbing abuse and misuse of social media, could place Mauritius among the ranks of regressive states. The proposed establishment of a National Digital Ethics Committee (NDEC) to determine what content is problematic in addition to a Technical Enforcement Unit to oversee the technical enforcement of NDEC’s measures has potential surveillance and censorship implications.

The social media regulation proposals by Mauritius are made in light of increasing calls for accountability of technology platforms such as Google and Facebook by western countries. Indeed, the consultation paper cites Germany’s Network Enforcement Act (colloquially known as the Facebook Act), which requires social media platforms to remove “illegal content” from their platforms within 24 hours of notice by users and complaint bodies. Non-compliance penalties are large – with fines ranging between five  million and 50 million euros.

The paper states that, unlike in Germany and other countries like France, the United Kingdom, and Australia, complaints by Mauritian local authorities to social media platforms “remain unattended to or not addressed in a timely manner”. Moreover, it adds, cooperation under the auspices of domestic laws and regulations is only effective in countries where technology companies have local offices, which is not the case in Mauritius. As such, according to the Authority, “the only practical solution in the local context would be the implementation of a regulatory and operational framework which not only provides for a legal solution to the problem of harmful and illegal online content but also provides for the necessary technical enforcement measures required to handle this issue effectively in a fair, expeditious, autonomous and independent manner.”

However, the Authority’s claims of powerlessness appear unfounded. According to Facebook’s Transparency report, Mauritius made two requests for preservation of five user accounts pending receipt of formal legal processes in 2017. In 2019, Mauritius made one request to Facebook for preservation of two accounts. Similarly, the country has barely made any requests for content take down to Google, with only a total of 13 since 2009. The country has never made a user information or content takedown request to Twitter. In comparison, South Africa made two requests to Facebook for preservation of 14 user accounts in 2017 and 16 requests for preservation of 68 user accounts in 2019. To Google, South Africa has made a total of 33 requests for 130 items for removal since 2009 while to Twitter, it has made six legal demands between 2012 and 2020.

Broad and Ambiguous Definitions

According to section 18(m) of Mauritius’ Information and Communication Technologies Act (2001, amended multiple times including in 2020), the ICT Authority shall “take steps to regulate or curtail the harmful and illegal content on the Internet and other information and communication services”.

Although the consultation paper states that the Authority has previously fulfilled this mandate in the fight against child pornography,  it concedes that it has not fulfilled the part of curtailing illegal content as it is not currently vested with investigative powers under the Act. The consultation paper thus proposes to operationalise section 18(m) through an operational framework that empowers the Authority “to carry out investigations without the need to rely on the request for technical data from social media administrators.”

The amendments to the ICT Act will relate to defining a two-pronged operational framework with the setting up of: i) a National Digital Ethics Committee (NDEC) as the decision making body on illegal and harmful content; and ii) a Technical Enforcement Unit to enforce the technical measures as directed by the NDEC.

However, neither the existing Act nor the consultation paper define what constitutes “illegal content”. Whereas the consultation paper indicates that the Chairperson and members of NDEC would be “independent, and persons of high calibre and good repute” in order to ensure transparency and public confidence in its functions, the selection criteria and appointing Authority are not specified, nor are recourse mechanisms for fair hearing and appeals against the decisions of the proposed entity.

An Authoritarian Approach to Internet Architecture

Through a technical toolset (a proxy server), proposed under section 11, the regulator will be able to identify social media traffic which will then be automatically decrypted, archived, and analysed. For instance, the technical toolset would undermine HTTPS in order to inspect internet traffic. This means that information of all social media users pertaining to device specifics, content type, location, among others, would be available to the authorities. The regulator expects that once a complaint regarding social media is received, they will be able to block the implicated web page or profile without necessarily needing the intervention of social media platforms.

Additionally, the Authority expects social media users to accept installation of a one-time digital certificate on their internet-enabled devices to facilitate the re-encryption of traffic before it is transferred to the social networking sites. In other words, the Authority wants internet users in Mauritius to replace their own padlocks used for their home security with ones given to them by the Authority, which it has open and unfettered access to.

On the other hand, Mauritius’ commitments to freedom of expression, data protection and privacy potentially collide with these social media regulation proposals. In particular, Mauritius’ Data Protection Act (2017) requires informed consent of users, prohibits disproportionate collection of user data, and mandates fair and lawful processing of user data. The Data Protection Act was enacted to align with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In March 2018,  Mauritius also ratified the African Union Convention on Cybersecurity and Personal Data Protection, although the Convention is yet to be enforced due to lack of quorum. Moreover, in September 2020, Mauritius signed and ratified the Council of Europe’s Convention for the Protection of individuals with regard to automatic processing of personal data.

Indeed, the Authority is aware of the potential infractions of the proposed technical measures on basic freedoms — stating in the paper that “the proposed statutory framework will undoubtedly interfere with the Mauritian people’s fundamental rights and liberties in particular their rights to privacy and confidentiality and freedom of expression”. Its seeking views and suggestions of “an alternative technical toolset of a less intrusive nature” may very well be an open solicitation for more surreptitious ways of monitoring social media data, with fundamental rights still at stake.

 Democracy and Local Investment

While Mauritius runs a multiparty system of government, its human rights record has been steadily deteriorating, according to the United States Department of State’s Human Rights Report 2020. Moreover, basic freedoms such as freedom of expression are being curtailed through digital taxation and clampdown on social media dissent. Recently, Twitter cited stability and democracy as the key reasons for the opening of its first Africa offices in Ghana. Although Mauritius is strategically placed as a regional and economic hub in Africa, and has been positioning itself as a “Cyber Island”, legal frameworks such as the proposed ICT law amendments and mixed rankings on democracy alongside high rankings on internet access and ease of doing business may likely undermine the country’s international competitiveness and internet freedom standing.

Accordingly, the Authority would do well to immediately discontinue these plans to employ technical measures to monitor social media and internet traffic as they would amount to multiple breaches of fundamental freedoms. The proposals also run counter to the Data Protection Act which prioritises minimisation of data collected and informed user consent. Moreover, the technical proposal would promote self-censorship and undermine the basic workings of the institutions of democracy.

Further, although social media regulation could be paved by good intentions such as the need to stamp out inflammatory content, it could be more beneficial to explore alternative options with a range of stakeholders to promote more fair and transparent content moderation practices in line with international human rights law. Mauritius has already proved that aligning domestic and international laws and practices is necessary by fashioning its data protection law along the lines of the GDPR. Additionally, Mauritius could leverage existing partnerships with other countries of regional economic blocs such as The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) to form a coalition of fact-checkers that have direct access to social media platforms.

Finally, the Authority could collaborate with technology platforms such as Facebook to support Creole language human moderators. This could be a necessary step to enhancing content moderation through automated decisions and more so for “low resource” groups of languages including Mauritian Creole.

World Press Freedom Day 2021

The event acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics. For more information on the event, please click here.

Advancing Consumer Protection across Africa in the Digital Age

By CIPE Writer |

Consumer protection serves as an avenue for promoting transparency, accountability, and trust in the digital age, helping shield both consumers and small businesses from unfair practices online. According to a report by the International Finance Corporation and Google, “Africa’s internet economy has the potential to reach $180 billion by 2025, accounting for 5.2% of the [Continent’s] gross domestic product (GDP). By 2050, the projected potential contribution could reach $712 billion, 8.5% of the [Continent’s] GDP.” As electronic commerce (eCommerce) grows, consumer protection should be seen as an enabler of the digital economy.

Although the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection offer guidance on the main characteristics of effective consumer protection legislation, “consumer protection is often one of the last areas that developing economies focus on regulating as they create frameworks around eCommerce.”

A LONG WAY TO GO

In Africa, very few countries are adequately addressing consumer protection concerns. Of the 54 African countries, only 25 have laws that pertain to online consumer rights and electronic transactions, while only four have draft laws. In other instances, issues pertaining to consumer protection are interspersed between laws.

For example, Uganda enacted laws on electronic transactions, electronic signatures, and computer misuse in 2011, yet gaps still remain in adequately securing online consumer rights. As more African countries develop new legislation and frameworks that seek to govern the digital economy, now is the opportune time for diverse stakeholder groups to engage in policy conversations and ensure that consumer protection is a priority.

IN AFRICA, VERY FEW COUNTRIES ARE ADEQUATELY ADDRESSING CONSUMER PROTECTION CONCERNS.

In addition to identifying opportunities at a local or national level, governments across Africa should work with one another and various stakeholder groups to address Continent-wide consumer protection concerns. The Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) and the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) identified the adoption of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) as an important development that presented an opportune time to advance dialogue and consensus on how to shape and govern the digital economy on the Continent to promote greater regional cohesion, development, and competitiveness.

WORKING TOGETHER TO PROTECT THE DIGITAL ECONOMY

To identify regional opportunities that can positively shape Africa’s digital transformation, CIPE and CIPESA brought together over 35 stakeholders representing the local private sector, civil society, media organizations, and government at the 2019 edition of the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This regional policy dialogue formed the basis of the Roadmap to Reform: Building an Enabling Environment for Inclusive Digital Transformation in Africa.

The Roadmap advocates for the advancement of strong consumer protection legislation across Africa to “help enhance trust in eCommerce across business-to-consumer (B2C) transactions and business-to-business (B2B) transactions that can arise in disputes around digital payments.” Since the multi-stakeholder conversations surrounding the adoption of the AfCFTA in 2019, key recommendations highlighted in the Roadmap to Reform remain timely, as African Union member states begin to implement the agreement after it came into force on January 1 of this year.

There is a unique opportunity for local business communities, civil society, media organizations, and governments to work together and ensure the agreement is implemented in a way that supports an inclusive enabling environment for the digital economy. To read more about the Roadmap to Reform, please visit:  https://cipesa.org/?wpfb_dl=426

CIPESA-ICT4Democracy Media Fellowship Programme

Fellowship Opportunity |
About the ICT4Democracy in East Africa network
The network works in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to achieve two top-line objectives: 1) Increased citizen participation in governance and the realisation of human rights through ICT; and 2) Improved transparency and accountability of governments through ICT. Partners in the network are the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), Transparency International Uganda, iHub Research (Kenya), the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), the Commission for Human Rights and Good Governance (CHRAGG, Tanzania) and Toro Development Network (ToroDev). Read more about the network here: www.ict4democracy.org.
Aim of the Fellowship Programme
The CIPESA-ICT4Democracy Fellowship (Media) aims to raise media understanding of, and its effective and consistent reporting of ICT-for-Democracy issues in East Africa. It is expected that the fellowships will result into increased quality and regularity of reporting, as well as a greater diversity of voices, in coverage related to ICT, democracy and human rights.
Applications will be accepted on a quarterly basis as per the below dates:

Fellowship round Application deadline
May – July April 1st
August – October July 1st
November – January September 1st
February – April January 1st

Duration: The fellowship shall last for up to three months but can in some circumstances be shorter.
Outputs
Participants in the media fellowship programme will be expected to create various outputs, which may include print articles such as features, broadcast content, multimedia content (animations and infographics) and social media content, as will be agreed in advance of the start of the fellowship.
Eligibility
Applicants should be early career print, broadcast, online or multi-media journalists. Individuals passionate about media platforms such as bloggers and social media enthusiasts with relevant skills are also welcome to apply. Applicants must be based in Kenya, Uganda or Tanzania. It is preferred that applicants have experience in coverage of areas that are relevant to the work of ICT4Democracy in East Africa partners, which may include social accountability, gender and youth mainstreaming, technology, human rights and governance.
Compensation
The fellows shall be given a modest allowance to cater for expenses related to producing the outputs of their fellowship engagement.
Application process
To apply, email [email protected] with subject line stating Application for Media Fellowship. Submissions should include:

  • Your CV
  • A statement of interest that mentions the outputs you intend to produce from the fellowship, how they will be disseminated, and how these outputs are beneficial to the work of the ICT4Democracy network or its partner organisation(s), a suggestion of which partner organisation you wish to be attached to, the duration for which you wish to have the fellowship, and anticipated expenses. The statement of interest should not exceed 3 pages.
  • Two samples of your work (written or other)
  • Two reference letters.

Study Reveals that a Culture of Secrecy Among Public Officials Hinders Media Work in Tanzania

By MISA Tanzania Correspondent |
A prevailing culture of secrecy among public officials in Tanzania at both central and local government levels is hindering the work of journalists, according to findings by a recent study. This is affecting access to information necessary for media reporting towards increased civic participation, transparency and accountability in governance.
The study which was conducted by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Tanzania Chapter in partnership with the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) assessed the responsiveness of local government authorities (LGAs) and central government offices in Tanzania to citizens’ information requests.
The study found widespread laxity among officials in processing information requests, with many claiming to have misplaced or lost filed requests. “If you received someone’s documents, why would you say you can’t see them just a week later?” wondered Haika Kimaro, a newspaper correspondent in Mtwara town in the south-east of Tanzania. In the port town of Kigoma, Rhoda Ezekiel, a correspondent with Uhuru Newspaper, recounted how the secretary of the Ujiji Municipal Council once claimed to have misplaced her information request when she followed up on a query she had submitted.
Radio journalist George Binagi shared a similar experience from the town of Mwanza: “I submitted my questions in writing to the Regional Commissioner’s Office. I went back 10 days later and did not get the answers. They looked for my letter and [claimed they] never saw it.”
But it is not only the media affected by limited access to public information. Researchers are affected too. During the study, Jacqueline Jones, a mass communication graduate and intern at MISA Tanzania, went to the Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner’s office posing as a student researcher. She requested for information pertaining to the office’s functions, ongoing projects, income and expenditure. However, she was turned away for lack of an introduction letter from a university, with officials claiming that work procedures do not allow them to disclose information without such a letter.
“Their customer service is awful and the people at the registry department were quite harsh and rude. One of them actually shouted at me for insisting on getting my answers in a written form,” said Jones.
She submitted a similar request to the Dar es Salaam City Council, which, according to the city’s Information Officer needed approval by at least four different Heads of Sections. The Information Officer provided her with the requested information upon receipt of the approvals.
Alternative platforms for accessing information offered their own challenges. According to Zulfa Musa, a Mwananchi Newspaper correspondent in Arusha, administrative assistants manage the City Council offices’ telephone numbers and getting in touch with the Director or his Secretary to request for information required one to have these officials’ personal phone numbers. It was difficult to make information requests as the administrators were reluctant to provide the personal contact information of the Director or his secretary.
The frustrations faced by the journalists who took part in the study indicates that it is likely that citizens face similar or worse challenges.
It is widely recognised that access to quality and timely information for citizens is crucial in facilitating informed dialogue, monitoring and evaluation of development issues at the local level, thereby accountable governance and improved public services delivery.
Gasirigwa Sengiyumwa, the National Director for MISA Tanzania, stated that whereas an Access to Information Act was passed in 2016, “it appears that both public servants and the general public remain unaware of this Law.” He added: “There is a need for sensitisation about the law through training workshops for both parties [public officials and citizens] to ensure that the rights and responsibilities provided for under the law are realised.”
The study was conducted as part of the ICT4Democracy in East Africa initiative’s objective to document and publicise the utility and effectives of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for government-citizen interaction, proactive information disclosure, and responsiveness to information requests, for the realisation of the right of access to information.
Seven out of Tanzania’s 28 regions were covered in the study, with a total of 28 information requests filed to 14 institutions during March and April 2017. The written requests were emailed as well as hand-delivered to the institutions. Follow ups on approval or denial of requests was conducted through phone calls and physical visits.
Read the full study at here.