As Southern Africa convenes this year’s edition of its Internet Governance Forum (SAIGF-15) in Harare, Zimbabwe, from 8-9 December 2015 it should identify and reflect on its key priority areas.
This comes on the backdrop of developments in the past year including recommendations made at the just ended 10th edition of the Global Internet Governance Forum (IGF), held in November in Joao Pessoa, Brazil.
The nine-SADC member states that attended the SAIGF-14 hosted by the Government of Malawi in Lilongwe last year noted key recommendations that are worth revisiting for consideration and prioritisation as the continent thrives to ensure the development and governance of the internet in the region.
Multistakeholderism as echoed in the SAIGF 2014 resolution relating to internet and human rights remains a hazy point that needs critical introspection for the continent. The recommendation makes a call to the tech community to engage actively in human rights online and internet governance related issues. Multistakeholderism is a process in which stakeholders make decisions based on consensus in an open, transparent and accountable manner.
Input into the Best Practice Forum (BPF) on Strengthening Multistakeholder Participation Mechanisms at this year’s global IGF, noted important issues pertaining to strengthening multi-stakeholder participation mechanisms, which the region must recognise and take on board. Trust, albeit recognised over time, remains a huge component of successful multi- stakeholder engagement and that transparency and accountability are the main components in building trust.
The second issue is that of defining consensus or ‘rough’ consensus so that all stakeholders are aware of processes for decision making and that the national IGFs have mechanisms or ‘equality safeguards’ in place to ensure that all stakeholders are adequately represented at decision level.
For the 2015 SAIGF, it is prudent to take stock of the extent to which member-state IGFs reflect multi-stakeholder engagement to reach a model that works within ‘our’ context.
Critical to this process is for the conveners of the IGFs to introspect on mapping of critical internet governance stakeholders within their national context. It is also important to locate these within agreed national strategies and facilitation processes.
Of note is the variations in the five Southern African countries that have established national IGFs. In Malawi the convener of the MIGF is the Department of e-government in the President’s Office. In Tanzania, its civil society led by the Union of Tanzania Press Clubs.
For South Africa the conveners are the Internet Society Gauteng Chapter, in collaboration the ZA Central Registry and Google S.A. As for Zimbabwe, this is through the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ).
While the Media Institute of Southern Africa’s (MISA) national offices in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi recognise the importance of engagement in setting up national IGFs, there are challenges that may hinder participation by some stakeholders. These include economic, social, linguistic and cultural barriers and gender inequality.
Net-neutrality vs. zero-rating
One of the prominent debates at the Global IGF related to net-neutrality versus zero-rated services in the context of both competition among internet service providers and content consumption by the everyday user. In her blog post: Zero Rating: Are we in Danger of killing the goose before knowing if its eggs are golden, pro-poor market advocate, Helani Galpaya’s argues that poor people should have access to the internet.
Galpaya’s argument that zero -rated services offer an opportunity for the poor to consume their favourite content for free or at a much lower price, was central to debates during the Global IGF.
It was argued that choices by telecommunications companies on which services or applications should be zero-rated was not necessarily driven by their popularity, but rather on how much they stood to benefit.
Critical for Southern Africa within the context of connecting the next billion is consensus on whether or not zero-rating is an issue warranting either net-neutrality policies or policies maintaining or limiting zero-rating. The latter would require a definitive role for the regulators in assessing the impact of zero-rating on fairness and competition in the sector.
Overall, this is a debate relating to the determination of special promotions, their cost and benefits for service providers, end users and content producers alike.
Developments in Southern Africa related to net-neutrality and zero-rating include South Africa’s MTN’s zero-rating of its Video on Demand (VOD) service, MTN FrontRo, in December last year. This gave MTN subscribers the advantage over other consumers of paying a waived R199 fee in a country where an estimated one million households have capacity to stream videos.
In Zambia and Malawi, Airtel customers have benefitted from Airtel Africa’s partnership with Facebook under its Internet.org application, renamed Freebasics. Airtel mobile customers in Zambia that use the android application and mobile website, access Facebook and its Instant Messaging service, Accu weather as well as local health and job services.
In Malawi Airtel Malawi and Telekom Networks Malawi enjoy free access to Facebook, Ask, Bing, UNICEF and online publication, Nyasa Times.
In Zimbabwe, mobile network operator, Econet Wireless, in the past year launched its own zero- rated services by selling data in ‘bundles’ which include Data, Facebook, Whatsapp, Opera Mini Surf and Buddie Bundles of Joy. Their other services include EcoSchool Zero, which gives its subscribers free access to over 50 educational websites.
Relating to the enhancement of digital trust, SADC member states were encouraged to undertake national transpositions of the SADC Cyber Security Model Laws and facilitate dialogue among stakeholders and create awareness on privacy and consumer protection on the internet.
They were also encouraged to promote more capacity building on cyber security and cyber crime.
This, followed adoption of the Convention on the establishment of a Credible Framework for Cyber Security and Personal Data Security in Africa at the African Union’s 23rd Ordinary Session in June 2014.The Convention addressees many issues associated with increased use of information and communication technologies in Africa.
During the Global IGF deliberations on the session on Enhancing Cybersecurity and building trust, one of the most critical issues raised was that cyber security is everyone’s problem. This warrants awareness that enables stakeholders to understand the cyber world and its potential impact on the individual’s privacy and threats to the nation as a whole.
Given internet growth in the region as a key driver of not only the African, but global economy and its potential in the realisation of Sustainable Development Goals, a comprehensive approach is key to tackling cyber crime and building trust between government, private sector and the everyday user of the internet.
It is crucial within the SAIGF context to outline the critical role, firstly, that awareness on cyber crimes laws plays as well as paying particular attention to contextual trends on the most likely crimes to occur in given country.
Secondly, to ensure stakeholder participation in coming up with the ideals for countries yet to adopt the law as is the case with Zimbabwe. Some critical issues to be discussed in the region should include judicial oversight on execution of the different warrants such as the interception of communication, search and seizure, and authorisation of a forensic tool.
Without the protection of the judiciary, intermediaries continue to be vulnerable. Also related to this is the debate on the publication of transparency reports by the government and intermediaries to determine the extent to which citizens’ right to privacy are protected including the prevalence of filtering and surveillance in the region.
Appreciation by the SAIGF and its member states that the driving factors within the internet governance framework are access, security, diversity and openness is critical at this moment.
And as the continent moves forward in its bid for a more accessible and democratic internet ecosystem, it is prudent that the principles relating to the protection of the rights of Africans to free expression, access to information, privacy and fair competition takes precedence in the interest of promoting development.