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Retrospecting Internet Governance

06 Dec 2016
epa06398350 (FILE) – A close-up image showing the Facebook app on an iPhone in Kaarst, Germany, 08 November 2017 (reissued 19 December 2017). According to reports, the German cartel office on 19 December 2017 found that Facebook has abused its dominant market position. The preliminary findings suggest that Facebook’s targeted advertising also uses third-party data collected from the social network’s subisidiaries WhatsApp and Instagram. EPA-EFE/SASCHA STEINBACH ILLUSTRATION

Internet Governance came on the global agenda following two United Nations sponsored phases of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) held in 2003 and 2005 that muted the need for the leveraging of the use of the Internet through multi stakeholder process.

Essentially, multi-stakeholderism is about bringing all stakeholders together, including governments, civil society, public users and service providers, so as to build consensus on how best to regulate and develop the use of the Internet to enhance access by a wider citizenry and ensure that they use the platform to enjoy their basic liberties, particularly freedom of expression, access to information and freedom of association.

Currently, very few African countries have achieved the multistakeholder approach in their respective IG processes. In Southern Africa, member states agreed to set up national internet governance forums (IGFs) to facilitate informed dialogue on policy and other related matters between stakeholders on internet develpments and governance by 30 June 2015. However, to date only five out of fifteen member states have set up and established IGFs.

This 11th IGF meeting was held after the 5th African Internet Governance Forum (AfIGF) held 16-18 October 2016 in eThekwini, Kwazulu Natal, Durban. The the 5th AfIGF was of significance as it was, for the first time, attended by four African Information Communication Technologies (ICT) ministers. Although central government and its affiliate institutions continue to dominate in the formulation of policy and regulation, they are not willing to engage on an equal footing with other stakeholders, thereby posing a challenges and obstructing full and equal participation of stakeholders.

There are paradoxes around the development and governance of the internet globally. On one hand, the internet is celebrated as an expansion and deepening of the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, access to and exchange of information and opinions. The internet offers unprecedented opportunities for the realisation of human rights, and plays an active role in our every day lives. On the other, and owing to technological developments, it has overall made it is easier, for especially the state, to undermine individual private communication. This is usually done without much consideration of the impacts on not only one person’s civil liberties, but the overall development and use of the internet in a country.

Internet shutdowns are the latest global phenomenon used by governments to ‘control’ citizen action. Globally over 50 internet shutdowns have been recorded for the year 2016. Africa has witnessed varied Internet shutdowns that range from total blackouts of access or targeted interruptions of popular social media platforms. The latest internet shutdowns on the continent include that of The Gambia imposed during the country elections, are Democratic Republic of Congo’s shutdown of social media applications, as the President Kabila’s term of office draws to a close. The reasons proffered for the shutdowns, are usually concerns of public disorder and national security during national elections. They are also used to censor citizens and control mobilisation during citizen led protests. In some instances the shutdowns are government sanctioned, while in others as is the case with Zimbabwe, the shutdown is unaccounted for.

During the year, African states drea up a draft African Union Declaration on Internet Governance which was presented at the AfIGF-2015 for input by stakeholders. After that the final draft of the document was presented to the Ministers of ICT during the Extra-ordinary meeting of the Specialized Technical Committee on Internet Governance and Cyber-security held in Bamako, Mali in September. The ministers endorsed the documents and now it awaits forwarding to the African Union organs for consideration and adoption.

Current Internet governance processes on the continent can be viewed as a litmus test of the extent to which Africans can engage on an equal footing, particularly so with the finalization of the AU Declaration on Internet Governance, which emphasizes on a multi-stakeholder model. Governments remain in the spotlight and face pressure for more open governance. However this may initially be a challenge as some governments, are not as open, transparent and accountable as expected.

African Civil society has been very active in Internet governance activities. However the relationship between the two has largely been adversarial, particularly because of the push by civil society for the promotion of human rights both on and offline. This is not to say that human rights are alien to governments, but rather that in their daily interaction, they disregard conventions and charters on human rights that they are signatory to.

In Nigeria, civil society serves as a technical partner to government in internet governance. This has been important in that while civil society has continued to take a firm position in policy debates, norms, standard setting processes and governance arrangements, there has been a level of  diplomacy  employed that has ensured that they still able to interact and  adopt progressive policies.

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Koliwe Majama is a Zimbabwean Media, Information, Communications and Technologies consultant with over 15 years experience working in civil society lobby and advocacy. In the region & globally she has invested in networking and thought leadership on varying internet governance trends, including gender and the internet –which she has a passion for.