As more Africans access the Internet and as activities on the Internet have blossomed, so have actions which threaten the rights of Internet users in Africa. Left unchecked, these actions compromise the safety of Internet users, depreciate the Internet and retard developmental growth and efforts. Across the continent, there is a clear call to action on the latest frontier of the war for human rights.
Through the internet, Africans are acquiring new knowledge, evolving novel business models, collaborating across borders, and participating in the overall value creation of the digital economy. The internet could reduce poverty, improve education, improve access to health care, revolutionise agriculture and food security, hotwire economic development and help solve some of the most complex developmental challenges faced by the continent.
Yet, as more Africans access the internet and as activities on the internet have blossomed, so have actions which threaten the rights of Internet users in Africa. These actions, undertaken from public and private sources alike, inform a new iteration of the continuing challenges to the human rights and freedoms of citizens of many African countries. Left unchecked, they compromise the safety of Internet users, depreciate the Internet, which is intended to be a free, open, and inclusive resource and retard developmental growth and efforts. Across the continent, there is a clear call to action on the latest frontier of the war for human rights.
In Africa, the biggest threat to internet rights and freedoms appears to be constituted governments. As the Internet has evolved as a communication tool, it has become central to the operations and preservation of political structures. Governments and political bodies are therefore adopting measures to regulate cyber-based activities. These measures often involve politically informed censorship and Internet shutdowns.
In 2021, Africa was recorded as the most censorship-intensive region in the world, with 12 countries shutting down the Internet, and with Africa responsible for about 35 per cent of all internet shutdowns in the year. The pattern of internet censorship in Africa is particularly concerning as they show that these measures are implemented by governments, not for public good or safety purposes, but often for undemocratic purposes such as controlling information dissemination during elections (Congo, Zambia, Uganda), to repress political protests, or to gag government critics and other forms of civic disruptions detrimental to the government (Nigeria, Burkina Faso, South Sudan, Chad).
In addition to censorship, governments similarly adopt other persecutory measures, whether online or offline, to disincentivise the free exercise of Internet rights. These may include media gagging through regulatory threats, crackdowns on Internet users who speak or act against the dictates of governments and targeted cyberattacks. In countries such as Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tunisia, among others, for example, numerous cases have been recorded of clandestine arrest and persecution of bloggers, journalists and other key Internet users based on online comments.
Beyond governments, the activities of individuals on social media platforms and the actions of social media actors/platforms increasingly undermine the rights and freedoms of users in Africa. These include cyberbullying, defamation on the Internet, implicit censorship, privacy breaches, infringement on intellectual property and other proprietary rights, exclusion and discrimination, and online persecution for thought and opinions.
Similarly, the actions of social media platforms may often result in breaches of the rights of individuals on the internet. These can either take the form of wrongful moderation and censorship, discrimination resulting from automated profiling or otherwise, breaches of privacy/non-compliance with data protection standards, abuse of data rights and exploitation of personal data for commercial purposes, etc. Often, within the African context, these abuses take a more problematic outlook due to the dearth of developed legal structures to protect human rights and contest infringement on the Internet.
The anecdotal evidence of the abuse, whether by individuals and social media platforms or by governments, demonstrate the urgent need for concerted attempts to establish and preserve internet freedoms in Africa.
Already, a burst of independent responses has emerged. They include the actions of local civic society organisations which engage in advocacy for human rights and legislative activism concerning Internet rights issues (such as Paradigm Initiative and Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project in Nigeria or CIPESA in Southern Africa), international organisations with a mandate to ensure access to the Internet and the right to the Internet (such as Access Now, the Electronic Frontier Foundation or the Open Rights Group), private sector initiatives, and decentralised individual responses, some of which take the shape of digital activism, civil disobedience, and guerrilla measures for avoiding government censorship.
There have also been efforts to establish common legal standards for the protection of Internet rights across the continent. These efforts include the development of instruments such as the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa and have established some level of legal and policy blueprints for Internet rights legislation in Africa.
But more needs to be done. It is important to continue to engage in efforts to preserve and promote internet rights in Africa on multiple fronts. Different stakeholders within the Internet ecosystem, including civic society organisation, private organisations and users, need to understand the stakes and contribute within the context of their activities to improving the landscape for Internet rights across the continent.
On the part of civic organisations, it is important to continue to agitate against the abuse of internet rights through legitimate avenues, irrespective of the challenges posed. It is also critical to ensure that information on Internet rights and the existing mechanisms for their implementation are made available to the public.
Private organisations and media outlets should strive to sensitise people on internet freedoms and expose activities threatening the internet and internet rights and should endeavour to respect the internet rights and freedoms, particularly the rights to privacy of people they interact with. Youth, digital citizens, and internet users, self-education and openness to sensitization on digital policy and rights would help ensure everyone is equipped to defend Internet rights on the new frontier of the fight for freedoms in Africa, including by denouncing actions which infringe the rights of others on the internet.
For governments, there could be no better time to start exploring human-rights-sensitive pathways and policies through the challenges to democracy, security, and development (where they exist) posed by activities in cyberspace as an alternative to the repression of internet rights. If Africa is to get it right at this juncture, it is important that all stakeholders, especially governments, evolve new ways of thinking about the internet and internet use, starting with internet rights.
Vincent Okonkwo | Lead Research Analyst, Tech and Innovation Policy | firstname.lastname@example.org
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