CIPESA Launches Report on State of Internet Freedom in Africa

Wairagala Wakabi, Executive Director, CIPESA
Wairagala Wakabi, Executive Director, CIPESA

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) has launched its 2019 report on the state of Internet freedom in Africa which tracks 20 Years of Internet controls in the continent, focusing on what has shaped the African digital society.

Launched at the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2019 (FIFAfrica19) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the report titled Mapping Trends in Government Internet Controls 1999 – 2019, tracks key trends in recent years; analyses the key risk factors; and maps notable developments on data protection and privacy legislation and violations, and users’ understanding of protecting their privacy online.

The study covers Bostwana, Burundi, Cameroon, the DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

The report says from the millennium bug to current trends in internet perceptions, use and access in Africa, there has been a mixed bag of developments that have taken place over the last 20 years that have shaped the African digital society.

The report finds that the countries reviewed appear to have adopted similar patterns particularly on information controls which have been increasing gradually parallel to the internet penetration growth over the same period. In the early years, there were efforts made in pursuit of increasing access to the internet.

The study finds African countries have broadened the range of measures that govern the use of digital communications including the internet. The implementation of oppressive laws and regulations, it also found out, is on the rise in the countries under review. The report says: “It is evident that countries are using legislation to legitimise practices which are otherwise unlawful to impose restrictions and internet controls. While laws in place are touted as necessary towards fighting cybercrime or enhancing cybersecurity in the countries, they are largely directed towards stemming opposition, clamping down on criticism and quelling local dissent.”

By 2005, according to the report, some countries started taking steps to intercept communications, including of digital communications. Between 2006 and 2010, several governments started to take dedicated moves to regulate the digital sphere, including prescribing various restrictive laws aimed at the use of information and Communication Technologies (ICT), coupled with investments geared towards enhancing government surveillance capacity.

Since then, we have witnessed a significant increase in African narratives and civic action online. However, these have been hampered by restrictive laws and practices which continue to contribute towards self-censorship, affronts to freedom of expression and press freedom, a persisting gender digital divide, and growing exclusion of vulnerable communities such as Persons With Disabilities (PWDs) through to the systematic disruption of communications and other internet freedom infringements.

It goes on to make a number of recommendations to various stakeholders including government, companies, media, academia, and technical community

The report urged governments to respect human rights and freedoms as enshrined in their constitutions and in international instruments that they have ratified; stop the use of internet control policies, measures and practices; and adopt and promote the multistakeholder approach to ensure transparent, inclusive and open stakeholder engagement in the development of internet related policies and legislation, among other recommendations.

It called on companies to, among other things, adopt and implement the UN Business and Human Rights principles and safeguard the rights of customers by default; require that government requests for internet controls comply with the rule of law and due process; and adopt terms and conditions of privacy and data usage must be clear, open and agreements must be honoured.

The Media was encouraged to collaborate with other stakeholders in the promotion of internet and press freedom; challenge laws that limit self-censorship and press freedom; and promote digital safety and the protection of journalists.

On the academia, the report encouraged them to conduct evidence-based policy and legal research; disseminate research findings and recommendations to promote internet freedom; and include internet freedom in their curriculum to ensure students are made aware of the issues.

Technical Community was called upon to design technologies that are rights respecting; educate stakeholders on the impact of new technologies on internet freedom; develop and promote local platforms to promote public engagement and internet freedom; and develop and promote innovative technologies to circumvent internet control restrictions and surveillance.

On civil society, the report called on them to collaborate to promote internet freedom through active monitoring, advocacy, research and public interest litigation; create awareness, build capacity and sensitize the public and key stakeholders through innovative initiatives to create greater understanding of internet freedom issues and on best practices. It urged mainstream human rights organizations to incorporate internet freedom in their programming, and collaborate better with specialised organizations working on internet freedom.