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The state of personal data protection is a mirror of the state of internet freedom in a country. There has been an increase in digital rights violations in Africa, such as arrests and intimidation of social media users, a proliferation of laws and regulations that undermine internet access and affordability, network disruptions and the increasing criminalisation of online conduct.

This was not only captured in the State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2018 report titled Privacy and Data Protection in the Digital Era: Challenges and trends in Africa, but was also a recurring theme and discussion topic during the fifth edition of the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2018 (FIFAfrica18) at La Palm Beach Hotel in Accra, Ghana on 27-28 September 2018.

The Forum, organised by the Collaboration for International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), brought together human rights defenders, journalists, government officials, private sector players, global information intermediaries, bloggers, developers and regulators, among others – all of whom have a role to play in advancing internet freedom in Africa.

FIFAfrica18 built on progress made in previous internet freedom forums held since 2014. The Forum’s expanding footprint mirrors the growing popularity of the event, which launched with 80 participants. It provided an opportunity to continue global discussions on internet governance and human rights including Internet Governance Forums (IGFs) at regional and national levels.

The Forum lined up panel discussions, workshops, hubs, exhibitions and lightning talks on a diversity of topics, including advancing advocacy and research on gender-based cyber violence in Africa, civic technology and social innovation. The Forum also supported skills development, including digital security practices for safe and secure ICT access and adoption, policy advocacy and engagement processes. Engagements at the Forum reflect current trends and concerns in access and usage of the internet and related technologies on the continent.

Although 22 African countries have enacted privacy and data protection laws, many internet users are not aware of the implications of their use of the web and how their rights are compromised, or how their data is automatically gathered or processed without their knowledge.

Indifference towards privacy and data protection issues?

What is disquieting is that many Africans tend to be indifferent to privacy and data protection issues. This came out during most of the discussions and it has led to countries legitimising and increasing their surveillance capacity. The lack of public awareness has contributed to widespread impunity for arbitrary or unlawful interference with the right to privacy.

The right to privacy is enshrined in various international human rights instruments. These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the United Nations Convention on Migrant Workers. These instruments adopt the same language and definition of privacy.

Charles Onyango-Obbo, the founder and publisher of Africapedia, said today’s generation must fight for internet freedom in Africa. He aptly stated that many African governments hate the free internet and they are now weaponising the internet for political purposes through the control and manipulation of a new digital bureaucracy.

Many African countries have proposed or passed laws and regulations that undermine public confidence in the use of online platforms. This has limited most Africans in terms of the extent to which they get the opportunity to demand accountability and to have a voice in governance processes.

It was evident that not every African enjoys the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds through the internet and digital technologies. This leaves civil society and bloggers, among others, to fight for an open and accessible internet for all.

The Zone 9 Bloggers aptly captured what most African bloggers or activists face. They shared stories on the tactics employed by the Ethiopian government to surveil and censor them, their trial and imprisonment for 15-18 months, and post-incarceration trauma. Their campaign serves as a global model for advocacy to counter government internet shutdowns. Their story showed that when people come together to fight for a cause, then the likelihood of succeeding is high. Other activists have also come up with new tools like NetBlock’s COST, which is already being used to underscore the disproportionate impacts of network disruptions in Chad and Ethiopia.

FIFAfrica18 also served as a platform to mark the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI) that is marked every year on 28 September. The IDUAI reinforces target 16.10 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which calls for ensuring public access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.

UNESCO marked the day by presenting a tool to assist African stakeholders in assessing internet freedom and development, broaden international consensus and foster access to information, online democracy and human rights. The Internet Universality Indicators highlight features of the internet which are fundamental to fulfilling its potential for sustainable development and for realising an inclusive knowledge society.

One important aspect of the Internet Universality Indicators is that they provide a standard tool of measurement to help states and non-state actors to measure policy decisions and regulatory actions. This initiative by UNESCO will assist the international community and national policy makers to tackle the legal, ethical and societal challenges of the information society.

FIFAfrica18 reinforced an important lesson, that it is important to respect the rights of all to engage in individual or collective expression of oppositional, dissenting, reactive or responsive views, values or interests through the internet.

The Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN) supports communities in East Africa to achieve food security through provision of practical and usable information on sustainable agriculture and environment using ICTs. ALIN is a member of the APC network, and ALIN's Bob Aston attended FIFAfrica2018 with support from a grant from the APC Member Exchange and Travel Fund.


Image: One of the breakout sessions during FIFAfrica2018, by MFWA.