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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.”