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Africa and the Internet: a 21st century human rights issue?

African leaders could allow freedom of expression, or they could mimic the Chinese model of building a 'Great Firewall of China' to shut down Internet systems that allow critical thinking.

By Rosebell KagumireGuest blogger / June 13, 2011



Geneva

Last week the UN declared Internet access a basic human right. To many in African countries, which are still grappling with challenges ranging from health, infrastructure, unemployment, etc., this declaration may be difficult to relate to.

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I am taking part in the Internet Freedom Fellows program funded by the US Department of State and managed by the US Mission in Geneva. The fellowship follows up on US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s pledge to find innovative ways to promote the use of the Internet in support of human rights. While in Geneva earlier this week, I took part in an event where Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, US Representative to the Human Rights Council, reiterated Mrs. Clinton’s statement that the Internet is “the public space of the 21st century.”

Many in Africa are yet to see the Internet as a basic right. Yet Ben Scott, Clinton’s policy adviser on innovation whom I had a chat with called the Internet “the first truly 21st Century human rights issue.”

We were looking at Internet freedom and before I had asked how this basic right would be realized for many in Africa. Mr. Scott said that just like mobile banking (MPesa, Mobile money) is doing tremendously well in Africa, Internet access will continue to be tied to mobile telephone penetration in Africa. He indicated that Africa’s mobile phone penetration has surpassed Europe’s yet it’s still at 40 percent. This makes the Internet and mobile phone market pose both an economic and political opportunity.

In most discussions it was clear that we have two types of freedoms related to the Internet; freedom to access Internet and freedom of expression on the Internet. World leading economies have thrived on information systems and making them accessible to all citizens, therefore increasing their participation in the economy. A connected society is going to be more prosperous and stable.

Many governments in Africa are moving to invest heavily in the laying down of Internet infrastructure. As more people on the continent are connected to the Internet, they will also seek a different kind of governance because of the access to information. This is what Scott called, a dictator’s dilemma.

"Everyone recognizes that future of economy is largely based on information infrastructure. So governments want populations connected but at the same time they want to control speech on these networks and it’s a dilemma,” Scott said. “Internet tends to shift power from centralized institutions to many leaders representing different communities. Governments who want to censor are fighting a battle against the nature of the technology,” Scott said.

So the dilemma faced by that despotic leader, whom we have in plenty on the continent, is political speech versus economic prosperity. Scott said: “You can’t have one and leave the other and that’s the exact dictator’s dilemma.”

This was well manifested in the recent protests in Uganda, when the government instructed the Internet service providers to shut down social media like Facebook and Twitter.

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