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Internet Governance and Africa

Author's name: 
Frédéric Dubois
Grahamstown

Nigerian freelance journalist Emeka Umejei already reported on African internet governance during last September’s Highway Africa (HA) http://www.americandailyherald.com/world-news/africa/item/africa-s-place.... Since then, we’re being confronted with internet governance issues at the current ITU-organised World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai. I thought I might revive a few points made at HA.

The discussion, moderated by Professor Harry Dugmore of Rhodes University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies, got underway when the acronym ITU was pronounced. The International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency, is being used as a “souffre douleur” by many from civil society, the private sector but also some governments who see the agency, and particularly the revision of its International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) as a potential threat to internet freedoms. Others think the ITU is the right space to impose controls and checks on internet use. Russia, for instance, has been at the forefront of the ITU having more scope in internet governance.

ITU, too technical for the internet

The panel participants – Brad White of ICANN, George Nyabuga of AfriNIC, Joy Liddicoat of APC; Courtney Radsch of Freedom House; and Fortune Sibanda of Google – argued quite unanimously in favour of a free and open internet, which they put in another category than telecommunications or broadcasting. One dominant opinion represented at the panel, was that “the ITU is a technical body and governments do not send their cultural ministry representatives, or social educational or economic but rather their ministries of communications, ICTs or telecommunications to the ITU”. The implications of lending the ITU body increased sway need to be questioned, certain panellists argued, especially in light of the internet being a public space, which needs to be kept “in the hands of the people and users.”

Is it the case currently?… one would be tempted to ask. Hardly, another one would be tempted to answer. Critical internet resources, as we know, are under the control of ICANN, a non-profit organisation registered under US jurisdiction.

This being said, point taken on the limited technical focus at the ITU. How to work together to save the internet for what it stands for – a free and open space – thus remains an open question. One avenue for this, some would argue, is the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which just capped off its 7th edition in Baku last month. There, as in other fora, internet governance is not just embraced from a technical viewpoint, but among other through the lens of human rights.

Human rights and the internet

As mentioned during the panel, there has been much talk over the last months and years about freedom of expression online, but it is high time that other human rights, including social and economical rights, as well as freedom of association for instance, be discussed. For the latter, see a recently released issue paper by Alex Comninos: http://www.apc.org/en/pubs/freedom-peaceful-assembly-and-freedom-associa...

The model, which is increasingly making its way in internet governance discussions, is the multi-stakeholder approach. In this model, governments fulfil their role as one of several stakeholders alongside the private sector and civil society. They do not exercise power over the other stakeholders. Rather, they try to incorporate ideas from these sectors into their policies and decision-making. Again, the IGF has been an opportunity to test the model. The current WCIT conference, even though not multi-stakeholder in its design, at least incorporates some input from civil society and the private sector. This is not enough, panellists argued, but it is a start.

The panel wandered into questions of internet freedom and national security, discussing the whistleblower case of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. It also made a place for content regulation, by discussing child pornography online. Emergency restrictions on internet freedom also made their appearance during the panel, identifying what the trends are and how internet users and other stakeholders needed to answer to concerns about online security.

African conversation on internet governance

On the question of how the African civil society is organising around issues of internet governance, Joy Liddicoat of APC cited the forum set up by colleague Mawaki Chango. The African Civil Society Conversation on Internet Governance is located here:
http://africs-ig.wiki.apc.org/index.php/Main_Page

As I’m writing these lines, .nxt – a blog “dissecting“ internet policy and governance – reports that the WCIT conference, which was announced as being the place where heavy internet regulation would make its grand debut, would actually revolve more about Africa (http://news.dot-nxt.com/2012/12/06/wcit-lowdown-its-all-about-afr). There are still two weeks to go, let’s keep watching.

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