Cybersecurity: Should this even be a current issue for the average internet user in Africa?

My debut appearance at the African School on Internet Governance (AfriSIG) 2017 was certainly an eye opener in respect of a lot of very important issues related to internet governance, without doubt one of best spaces to start engaging with internet governance issues on continental level.

Distinctively, AfriSIG is a rich melting-pot of professional backgrounds, nationalities, ages, expertise and many other persuasions. This in my view made for very rich ground for networking and getting a multidimensional feel of internet governance issues across Africa under one roof.

But by far my take-back-home session was cybersecurity. I must note here that from the onset the conversation starter ringing in my head was: Should cybersecurity even be an issue of concern for the average users of the internet here in Africa? Could we probably have other “more important” issues to be addressing expeditiously and leave this for some time in the future? The conversations during the school, while very insightful, only cast me farther away from answering these questions.

I have always wanted to engage with this topic and learned as much as I could, and of course, it just simply sounds cool, more like something out of a science-fiction movie. It is exactly for this sci-fi feel that makes it an issue for me. Cybersecurity is a secondary issue that is quite easily subordinated to access here in Africa. Progressive conversations during AfriSIG 2017 built and supported the feel of a lopsided focus on the internet governance aspect, in the cybersecurity debate. My sense is an asymmetrical focus around consensus building on terminology and legislative approaches. In my view, some really high-level issues, versus basic literacy on how to safely navigate online spaces. If the ratification of cybersecurity conventions is anything to go by, then the debate on cybersecurity is really still stuck up there in international diplomacy clouds. 

When it comes to the high-level conversations, ordinary consumers/users are more or less just passive audiences. This may justifiably be so, because more than anything ordinary internet users lack either the means or the comprehension capability to participate in the “conversations that matter” covering the issues that affect them most. What is undeniable, however, is that conversations about the internet in Africa, particularly the least developed regions, circle mainly around access and connectivity, and yet security as a theme should be running in parallel. 

Internet users are no longer just consumers of online content, but also producers, something a colleague at the AfriSIG2017 school referred to as prosumers, fashioned from the two words producers and consumers. These prosumers are definitely relevant and often the missing voices in the high-level dialogues on cybersecurity issues, shaping internet governance. So, at the end of the day it’s not a question of whether internet users should be concerned with cybersecurity issues or not, but rather how cybersecurity can run parallel with other immediate issues such as access.

There is arguably an unavoidable interest in the centrality of cybersecurity issues to general human development in Africa, where the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals will hinge on leveraging ICTs and the internet. Some simple examples relate to how Africa leads the world in money transfers using mobile phones, with 14% of all Africans receiving money through mobile transfers as quoted in the Symantec 2016 Africa Cyber Security 2016 report. Zimbabwe’s Ecocash, One Wallet, Telecash, as well as Kenya’s M-Pesa and many other examples across Africa, certainly paint a picture of hope of how Africa is potentially leapfrogging itself into some future alongside global leaders such as Europe and the United States. Cybersecurity becomes a more critical issue when one considers how ICTs, connected online, have the potential to contribute to growth in areas such as health (telemedicine), education (resource access) and energy. Public dialogue on cybersecurity should therefore be an absolute priority.

So then what’s my point from all the reflection I made during AfriSIG 2017?

Well, simply put, ordinary internet users have not been sufficiently included in the cybersecurity conversations. They lack the means and capability to participate properly and ultimately cannot afford to be part of the process. The “prosumer” is the most important stakeholder in a multistakeholder process. The language and content of discussions on cybersecurity need to be understandable to everyone.

Yeyyy to AfriSIG 2017 for getting us to talk about this. We will definitely be taking the conversation back home to Zimbabwe.

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