ICT Policy Interventions to Promote Digital Participation in Africa

Information Communication Technologies (ICT’s) are increasingly used by government agencies across the African continent with a view to making their service offerings more widely accessible. E-governance is widely considered a powerful and effective tool in the fight against corruption which it achieves by increasing transparency, efficiency and greater accountability of Government officials. The development of E-Governance, E-Health, E-Education, E-Commerce and other E-Initiatives aimed at promoting social and civil inclusion and participation has made broadband penetration increasingly important to the socio-economic development of rural communities.

These developments bring to the fore what are in my view the most important areas requiring intervention from African policymakers in the near future. These are Broadband demand and supply stimulation policies and comprehensive cyber security & data protection legislation.

Broadband demand and supply stimulation
The internet has been a phenomenal force that has had a profound impact on communications over the last twenty years. By putting the power of communication in the hand of every person with access, it has to date allowed for the most democratic and uncensored dissemination of information. A recent issue that has arisen is the debate on whether the internet is in and of itself a human right, a civic right or whether it is merely a medium that facilitates the realisation of human and/or civic rights.
Despite the differing opinions on the issue, one thing everyone agrees on is the fact that the internet has the potential to be the most effective and efficient tool to ensure widespread access to human rights. The UN report on “the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” by Frank La Rue, special rapporteur to the United Nations views it as an “indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all states.”

The African continent is presently the least connected in the world in terms of internet penetration. However, the landing of the sea cables on the East, West and Southern African coasts over the last couple of years coupled with the increase in more affordable internet ready mobile devices is rapidly changing that with many African countries witnessing a rapid evolution of broadband penetration.
Policy makers can expedite internet penetration by developing policies that stimulate the demand for and supply of broadband. Although demand and supply stimulation interventions already exist in some countries such as Tanzania where ICT equipment is exempt of VAT to make it more affordable, there is room for more to be done and with more vigour. These approaches could include interventions to promote the development of local digital content thus making the internet more ‘relevant’ to its citizens as well as skills development initiatives to ensure that more people in rural areas have the skills to use the internet.

Cyber Security and Data Protection
As we embrace the many advantages that cyberspace offers, and promote the proliferation of the internet, African policy makers – like those across the globe – need to actively work on the development of interventions and awareness campaigns around the issue of cybersecurity.
One such intervention to date has been that of SIM Card registration. The bulk of mobile subscribers across the continent use pre-paid SIM cards not only for voice telephony but also for internet access using either internet enabled phones, or mobile 3G devices. For this reason, many of the regulators on the continent have passed regulations requiring mobile operators to compel subscribers to register their SIM cards in order for their subscription to remain active. The rationale behind these regulations is primarily to reduce fraud, and other related crimes. In order to comply, subscribers need to provide proof of their identity – and in some countries their residential address – to the operators ‘authorised’ agents. In order to expedite the process and make it easier and more accessible to all sections of their subscriber base and meet their deadlines, operators engage the use of local agents as the first point of collection for the personal information. The data is then held in a central database that is accessible to government authorities.

However, many regulators appear not to have given much thought to the risks created by the collation and centralisation of large amounts of personal information particularly in countries with a propensity for ethnic violence. Most African states do not have a single consolidated piece of legislation that addresses the issue of data protection and the management of personal information.
The absence of clear, transparent and robust data protection laws, poses a potential risk factor for abuse by both the public and private sectors and use of personal data as a mechanism for social/political isolation and control. Consequently, there is a real need to identify and develop practical regulatory solutions that would assist in the mitigation of the risks posed by the collation and management of personal information.

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