In the past, demands for equality, good governance, justice and recognition of human rights on the continent seemed a preserve for opposition political players, civil society and in some instances, the traditional ‘private’ media. However, with the growth of mobile telephony and internet in Africa, that monopoly has been unbundled. The monopoly on the dissemination of information, free opinion and expression, organising and mobilisation is dead and buried.
Personally, I feel that the current internet governance processes on the continent are a litmus test of the extent to which Africans can engage on an equal footing on critical socio, economic and political issues. The rhetoric at a global level has resulted in a ‘simulation’ of the multi-stakeholder model across the continent through the National Internet Governance Forums (IGFs) that bring governments to interface with civil society, technologists, the private sector and ‘netizens’ to reach consensus on the development, use and governance of the Internet.
However, the ‘traditional’ culture of governance dominated by central government and affiliate institutions in the formulation of policy and regulation continues to present challenges and obstruct full and equal participation of stakeholders in people-centered governance.
Within the context of internet governance, government represented by the ministry of ICT’s and the relevant regulators, are key players in the formulation of Internet policy and regulation. In some cases, government spearheaded and dictates the pace in the processes often masking their dominance in insincere consultative processes.
It is crucial for governments to shift their view of the internet needing the same ‘controls’ imposed on traditional media. The Internet aids participatory democracy and opportunities to reach out to a populace without the geographical, transmission and circulation limitations seen in government interaction via the mainstream media. Unlike the media, it allows opportunities to engage and enhance citizen participation in national processes. This may initially be challenging as some governments, are not as open, transparent and accountable as expected, but it is undoubtedly an opportunity for change.
As governments are in the spotlight and face pressure for more open governance. Their response has, in some instances, come as varying forms of Internet censorship through total or partial shutdowns, state-sponsored surveillance and arrests and/or detention of bloggers, activists and ordinary citizens exercising rights online. Extreme cases of such censorship has been witnessed on the continent in the shutdown of the Internet in Egypt in 2011 , the 12-hour Internet curfew imposed in Gabon this September and the current Internet shutdown in Ethiopia following massive protests in the Oromia province.
Role of civil society
African Civil society must strengthen support channelled towards governments in the promotion of human rights. Human rights are not alien to governments, as they are signatory to a number of conventions and charters, all hinged on the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Within the Internet governance framework, government needs support in interacting with the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms which aims to promote human rights and openness in policy making and implementation of the policies. This interaction must include placing mechanisms in policy and law to ensure the full promotion of rights online during the implementation.
Admitedly, the relationship between African civil society and governments is largely antagonistic. This is because, civil society has played ‘devils advocate’ in its watchdog role and attempts to balance governance in the public interest. In Zimbabwe, for instance, government views civil society as having a ‘regime change’ agenda.
With that in mind, civil society must, within its mandate strategically position itself as a technical partner to government. Over the years, civil society has become integral in policy debates, norms, standard setting processes and governance arrangements at both national and supranational level. This position requires the employing of diplomatic strategies for lobby and engagement with government in consensus building processes.
According to Paradigm Initiative Nigeria Director, Gbenga Sesan cordial relationships between civil society and government in Nigeria have seen significant adoption of civil society proposals in ICT policy and Internet governance processes. This process can be achieved by identifying individuals in political party structures or parliament that can influence adoption of progressive policies.
Alternative lobby approaches are an acknowledgement that while multistakeholderism strategy brings everyone together, power dynamics still exist. It is not only enough to participate, but it is critical to influence.
‘African lives do matter’ and the media that must ensure people are central by raising awareness on their socio, economic and political rights and their centrality in development and governance.
Reporting internet policy is complex mainly because of the conflicting interests of the key stakeholders. These include the interests of the government in the context of ‘national security’ and ‘public order’. It also includes private sector interests of profiteering, licensing conditions and operations in fragile states following social mobilization as witnessed in the 2011 Arab Spring and subsequent an online social movements #FeesMustFall in South Africa and Zimbabwe’s #ThisFlag.
Noting their role at the intersection of human rights and cyberspace, media must be vigilant in understanding, articulating and contextualising , not only cyberlaws, but other national laws that may violate citizens’ rights in contradiction to constitutional provisions. It is unacceptable for media not to appreciate internet governance issues, especially with the ubiquity of information available online.
The media must guard against propagandising digital rights through misinformation. Media lobby and advocacy organisation, MISA-Zimbabwe, in August 2016 noted misleading reports by the state print and public broadcaster on what constitutes cyber terrorism. The repercussions of such poor and biased reportage are fear and self-censorship in the exercise of citizen rights to free expression, association and accessing information. In the long run, such reporting will result in the continents failure to realise the full political and economic potential of the Internet. The media must realise that well researched and ethical reporting puts pressure on relevant authorities to ensure justice and equality.
Government, civil society and the media should effectively play their role in the achievement of democratic societies in Africa in a complementary multi-stakeholder strategy reliant on mutual respect and trust.
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.
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