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 , Guest blogger

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.

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.”

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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.

First, the telecom industry is one of the leaders in tax revenues in Uganda and provides a lot of jobs for the Ugandan youth in a country where the number of unemployed graduates has become worrying. In the face of such a directive companies had a lot at stake, most telecoms provide Internet and they feared a backlash. This directive was leaked to the press by people in the telecoms who were concerned that they would be the first victims of the backlash. So in the end the government didn’t achieve its mission. President Yoweri Museveni cannot choose to get the taxes from the telecoms, which help him run the country and at the same time easily pass directives to control information.

Clay Shirky, adjunct professor at New York University graduate program on Interactive Telecommunications said no other invention has ever threatened the Westphalian nation-state like the Internet has done. The states in the past were able to effectively control radio, newspapers, and TV, but the Internet is a challenge.

“This is a cultural and political choice," Shirky said. "Protecting freedom of speech is a governance challenge. Westphalia, where government controls everything, survived the 20th Century media innovations, we are going to see if they can survive the internet.”

Hindering access

Only 10 percent of Ugandans access the Internet, yet about 10 million of the 33 million Ugandans have mobile phones. The use of Internet is partly hampered by illiteracy levels as well as cost, but Uganda has a youthful population which will take up new information systems even with just post primary education.

There are real infrastructure problems hindering access to Internet in Africa but we are seeing more investment. According to ComputerWorld, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi have linked forces together on a $400 million investment in terrestrial fiber optic cables. The new network is expected to run close to 16,000 kilometers from southern Sudan to Tanzania’s border with Zambia. The terrestrial network called the East Africa Backhaul System will connect to the submarine fiber-optic cables on the East Africa coast.

However some governments have already moved to suppress freedom on the Internet. According to recent report from Freedom House, Ethiopia’s Internet is one of the least free in the world. Internet access has been denied and controlled through monopolizing the communications industry to curtail freedom of expression. In Ethiopia the few people that access the Internet that is government controlled cannot freely express themselves.

This kind of control is what my friend Ssozi described to me when we spoke about the Internet as a basic right declaration. He said as long as access to information is not a right, Internet as a basic human right will not benefit most.

The China way

Even with infrastructure in place, many worry that some governments in Africa may decide to go the way of China, which has put up what’s now famously called the "Great firewall of China." It’s a deceptive path for African governments who may be considering following suit and having economic prosperity and also stifling freedoms of expression and speech.

China spends a lot of money to build firewalls that prevent free speech, but Scott believes this cannot easily be replicated. He says even with its economic might to maintain it alone will continue to cost China to block people from accessing information. The costs of bypassing the firewalls are significantly cheaper than putting one up, say observers.

In Africa, governments still have a hold on public broadcasting, which many people rely on in the absence of cheap, accessible Internet. So for Internet access as a basic right to be realized, or even for it to make a difference in the way citizens in Africa can hold their governments accountable, development budgets and strategies for both by governments and international development organizations must take this into consideration.

There also have to be efforts to ensure protection in the face of growing desire by governments to curtail freedom on the Internet in the wake of North Africa uprisings. We have seen the Internet play a key role in protests in Swaziland, Gabon, and Uganda to some extent.

At a recent meeting of bloggers organized by Google Africa and Global Voices, there was a general concern that many African governments are employing tactics of threatening Internet users directly instead of cutting off the Internet or attacking their sites, which could bring about immediate condemnation. In Uganda, journalist Timothy Kalyegira is the first person to be arrested and charged for an online article written in Uganda Record.

Scott said that in the Internet age there has to be a “move from government-to-government diplomacy to a people-to-people diplomacy.” When questioned on the recent Wikileaks case, Scott argued that there’s a need to balance state security and Internet freedom. Yet it’s in the same name of security that authoritarian government crackdown on their citizens.

Shirky says the debate on whether there can be Internet freedom is still very much open. “No country recognizes a universal right to speak. The negotiation around this kind of freedom is going dominate the next ten years.”

--- Rosebell Kagumire is a Kampala-based journalist who blogs on East African affairs at Rosebell's Blog.

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