The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms Coalition (AfDec) has published the latest in its “AfDec COVID-19 Impact Series”, which examine the extent to which national and regional responses to the Coronavirus pandemic, particularly in telecommunications policy and regulation, may have impacted the regime of human rights online.
Titled “A provisional analysis of the impact of telecommunications policy and regulatory frameworks in Africa and COVID-19: A community networks perspective”, the paper was written on behalf of AfDec by Josephine Miliza, a network engineer project manager for TunapandaNET, a community network that focuses on empowering local communities to collaboratively create sustainable connectivity models for socio-economic impact.
The paper also examines the widening digital divide and the role that telecommunication policy and regulatory frameworks play in closing the gap.
According to the author, the article was informed by two preliminary observations, the first being that regional state and non-state actors predominantly view the Coronavirus pandemic through clinical lenses, while largely projecting its current and anticipated impact in public health and socio-economic terms.
The second observation is that the responses to COVID-19 have been state-centred, resulting in widening the digital divide and violating digital rights, such as the right to information and freedom of expression.
The paper discusses the inequalities online and offline that have become apparent from the shift to online spaces, especially for work and education.
Specifically, it considers how the shift to online spaces is impacted by the digital divide and the potential capacity of community networks in Africa to provide access during and beyond COVID-19.
The paper then discusses the importance of bottom-up approaches to fighting the pandemic and the role of community and community-based organisations such as community networks, radios and health centres.
It describes COVID-19 as “a wakeup call on the importance of universal access for all”, observing that Internet access and affordability, one of the key principles of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms, advocates for affordable access for all Africans regardless of race, colour, sex, language, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
The paper also notes that “As more people get online, the internet is now becoming an enabling platform for fundamental human rights such as the right to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and political participation.”
According to the paper, the full impact of the pandemic is yet to be fully realised, as new cases are being reported daily and countries are yet to fully reopen.
It says although operators have had increased traffic, it is too early to determine if the sector will experience losses or make profits but that the responses from regulators have been mainly towards large national operators, and consequently leaving out end-users served by small-scale operators and community networks.
A key question raised by the paper is how the experiences from the pandemic will shape the future of policy regulation in Africa, although it commends the fact that during the pandemic, regulators on the continent have had a fast turnaround in terms of implementation of the emergency responses.
It proposes that “The connectivity agenda should not only focus on commercially viable areas such as cities, but also consider rural and marginalised communities who require support beyond access<” adding that “It is not enough to have access; users must have the right digital skills and tools that enable them to fully participate in the digital space.”
The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms is a Pan-African initiative to promote human rights standards and principles of openness in internet policy formulation and implementation on the continent. The Declaration elaborates on the principles which are necessary to uphold human and people’s rights on the Internet, and to cultivate an Internet environment that can best meet Africa’s social and economic development needs and goals. Media Rights Agenda (MRA) is a founding member of AfDec and, along with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) in Accra, Ghana, serves as the Secretariat of the Coalition.
The full paper is available here.