Internet Freedom in Africa under threat

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Internet Freedom in Africa under threat

The Internet has been described as an undisputed force for economic growth and social change – more so in developing countries, with the World Bank reporting that a 10 per cent increase in broadband correlates to a 1.38 per cent increase in GDP growth. If this were the case, why do the authorities in Africa look upon the Internet with suspicion? Is it as subversive as the authorities make it out to be with attempts being made in some countries for the Internet to be fettered? Olubayo Abiodun, Clifford Agugoesi and Chimezie Ndubisi look at this rather disturbing trend.

FROM every indication, the Internet is clearly under siege globally. No continent is spared. High-tech censorship is on the rise in East Africa. Internet freedom in South Africa is under attack amid growing Internet censorship throughout the continent.

Two advocacy groups, the International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN), have taken up the challenge of highlighting the problems on the continent, planning to co-host online discussions on online safety matters in Africa.

Both organisations noted: “Africa’s Internet usage continues to grow steadily, with an estimated 16 per cent of the population on the continent using the Internet for business and entertainment. The increased availability of affordable marine fibre optic bandwidth, a rise in private sector investments, the popularity of social media and innovative applications, and increased use of the mobile phone to access the Internet, are all enabling more people in Africa to get online. In turn, there are numerous purposes to which users in Africa are putting the Internet‐from mobile banking, to connecting with fellow citizens and with leaders, tracking corruption and poor service delivery, innovating for social good, and just about everything else.”

CIPESA and PIN added: “The increasing usage of the Internet, however, has in some countries attracted the attention of authorities, who are eager to provide caveats on the openness of the Internet and the range of freedoms which citizens and citizens’ organisations enjoy online. The popularity of social media marketing, the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables saga and the Arab Spring uprisings have led many governments including those in Africa to recognise the power of online media. In a number of African countries, there are increasing legal and extra-legal curbs on Internet rights, in what portends tougher times ahead for cyber security.”

The outcomes of the online discussions will feed into a report that will be presented at the first African Internet Freedom Forum to be held in 2014. Furthermore, it will inform the work of CIPESA, PIN and their partners that are working in the area of online freedoms.

President, CIPESA, Luis Moreno Cardenas

President, CIPESA, Luis Moreno Cardenas

Conscious of these setbacks on freedom on the net, the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology floated a campaign to stop the ratification of the African Union Convention on cyber security by opening a petition. Justifying his organisation’s standpoint in an article titled Africans online freedom under threat, Washington Odipo wrote: “There are some people who are very much interested in curtailing online freedom for Africans to access information. Not only that, these guys are interested to make sure that you and I will no longer freely air our views on issues affecting us. To achieve their motive of controlling the type of information available for Africans online, they have drafted a convention for the establishment of a credible legal framework for cyber security in Africa.

“The summary of the draft reads, ‘The Draft Convention…seeks to harmonise African cyber legislations on electronic commerce organisation, personal data protection, cyber security promotion and cyber crime control.’ Additionally the convention wants to define ‘the security rules essential to establishing a credible digital space in response to the major security related obstacles to the development of digital transactions in Africa.’

Further, the convention seeks to lay ‘the foundation for an African Union-wide cyber ethics and enunciates fundamental principles in the key areas of cyber security.’ It also defines the basis for electronic commerce, puts in place a mechanism for combating intrusions into private life likely to be generated by the gathering, processing, transmission, storage and use of personal data and sets broad guidelines for incrimination and repression of cybercrime.

“On the surface the draft convention looks very well-intended, but wait until you read some articles in the convention. As espoused by Dennis Mbuvi on his blog post, ‘African countries propose stringent rules governing ecommerce and data’, we can say that what the convention really wants to achieve is to:

“Violate the right to privacy – The convention uses contentious concepts such as state security versus public interest. We all know state security can take many interpretations in African context case in point would be the state considering bloggers as a threat to state security – this is but a one case in point. Look at Article II 8-9 of the AUCC.

Violate some aspects of the right to freedom of expression – Article III – 55 reads, “gather & register real time data in respect to content of specific communication”

Cause an additional unjustified burden to the (1) individual & (2) corporations – This is in terms of compliance which would be done at the consumer & corporations expenses.
Give absolute powers to Judges on basis of unjust civil liberties curtailment – If you look at Article 55 the phrasing itself looks at an investigating judge which could be applicable to Franco-phone countries where the judge is active in the investigative phase of a case.

From the blog post by Dennis you will also learn that the convention may criminalise the ‘use of nicknames, pen names and anonymous blogging, especially when exposing sensitive matters’.

“Other than slowing down the growth of ecommerce web agency, the convention can also have negative effects on advertisements as any advertiser must be properly identified, restrictions on apps development as app developers must be aware of restrictions on personal data collection, and the penetration of services such Twitter, Facebook, Google, and other international platforms will be greatly slowed as owners of these services may not want to comply with stringent control measures recommended in the convention.”

The report, Impact of the Internet in Africa, Establishing conditions for success and catalysing inclusive growth in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal, of April this year by Dalberg noted that the story of the Internet in developing countries was very much a work in progress.

Internet Freedom in Africa under threat

According to the report, the Internet’s potential is still largely untapped in sub-Saharan Africa. Broadband penetration on the continent is low compared to regions of similar income, and although 15 per cent of the world’s population lives in sub- Saharan Africa, only six per cent of the world’s Internet users do. Despite widespread agreement on the web’s potential to transform lives and reduce poverty, there is a paucity of information that details how policymakers and investors should capitalize on this potential.

Moving away from Dalberg, of greater concern is the stark reality that continent-wide attempts are being made by the authorities to moderate Internet use and users alike, overtly or otherwise.

In a 2011 article, the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, Jillian York wrote: “Despite much attention paid to Egypt and Libya’s Internet shutdowns, Tunisia’s pervasive Internet filtering, and Morocco’s arrests of bloggers, little attention has been given to Internet censorship issues throughout the rest of the African continent. Events in recent weeks, however, have brought the region’s online troubles into sharp focus.

“In Ethiopia, government filtering of websites has long been common practice. Despite an Internet penetration rate of only 0.5 per cent, the Ethiopian government blocks a range of political opposition websites, web hosting as well as independent news sites reporting on the country and the sites of a few human rights organizations. Ethiopia’s Internet infrastructure is state-owned, leaving control of it entirely at the hands of the government.

“Recently, on World Press Freedom Day, Ethiopian officials hijacked an event sponsored by UNESCO, removing independent journalists from the line-up and installing government-approved reporters in their place, as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported. At the same time, the government lifted the ban on a variety of sites normally blocked under the country’s filtering regime. Ostensibly, the lift occurred in the face of the UNESCO event’s theme: New Media and the Internet.

Despite the unblocking – likely temporary, if history is any indicator – Ethiopia continues to be one of sub-Saharan Africa’s worst offenders when it comes to Internet freedom.

In the case of Uganda it is just-in-time blocking. While protests were raging like wildfire across the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab Spring uprisings, ”just-in-time” blocking of websites (a phenomenon wherein sites are blocked temporarily around a protest or other event) was used to halt the protests. This phenomenon is become increasingly common. In April, Uganda’s Communications Commission (UCC) quietly ordered ISPs to block Facebook and Twitter for 24 hours in light of a Walk to Work protest against spiralling food and fuel prices in the country. When pressed, the office stated that the order was unnecessary and that no ban would take place. However, some Ugandans reported the sites temporarily inaccessible on Uganda Telecom.

Though the sites remain accessible, Ugandan Commissioner of Police Andrew Kaweesi has called cyber activism a Western phenomenon, stating that ”governments need to come up with an enabling law that guards against misuse of communication networks to protect social values and national identity,” and called for regulation of online publications.

Though most of the continent has been free from Internet filtering, with increased access comes increased control. Burundi, which is not known to block websites, arrested the editor of an online news site in 2010, and in April 2011 the prosecutor in the case sought a life sentence. Such methods aren’t uncommon. Egypt’s Internet is largely free as well, yet dozens of bloggers have been arrested over the years.

Practices vary by country. For example, some nations, such as Cote d’Ivoire, have moved to enact filtering. In March, a directive from the Ivorian Telecommunications Agency called for the ban of anti-Gbagbo websites. There is no word on whether that initiative has since fallen through.

Sudan has left the Internet largely unfettered, preferring instead to use social networking sites to track down protesters. According to a blog post by researcher Patrick Meier, the Sudanese government reportedly set up a group calling for protest, drawing thousands of activists to join. Many of those who attended the street protests were met by police and arrested for their participation.

Despite strides in recent years, the African continent continues to struggle with Internet access, lagging behind the rest of the world with only 5.6 per cent of the total global online population. Nevertheless, recent initiatives, including one from Google, promise to develop greater access to the Internet.

But as access to the Internet increases across the African continent, there will undoubtedly be a cost, as there has been in so many other parts of the world: online freedom.