ICT Policy in Africa and the Internet and Human Rights

In this post, I am going to address two main issues: the need and role of ICT policy in Africa, and the relationship between Internet and human rights. The landscape of ICTs probably is the fastest growing sector ever experienced with any medium or any transformative technology. In number of years, it wasn’t that long ago that we were told Africa will at last leapfrog the heavy requirements of the industrial age and accelerate its development process thanks to the internet, and to ICTs more generally. I have to confess that was the discourse which got me involved, starting in 1996 at UNESCO, in this business of ICT4D and ICT policy in the first place. The promise was intriguing, and I decided to find out.

However, it didn’t take long before I arrived at the conclusion that the leapfrog proposition about development was based on an assumption that made it a vicious circle. For “the developing Africa” to take full advantage of the potential of ICTs, its views about, and actual ways of, doing business would have to be opposite to the ones that have left that continent struggling with its development. And of course, if that had been the case, then… you get the picture. Ultimately, the mere possibilities offered in the abstract by the most revolutionary technological capabilities do not development make — just as the availability of cash in itself, especially when it comes in the form of bank loans, does not. No matter the best material capabilities available to help achieve development goals, it will also require the right mindset, including views, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, approaches, methods, etc. In my opinion, some of the most effective tools to enact the elements of a right mindset (relatively to the challenge at hand) include leadership, coordination and policy.
The view of development as a ‘catching-up’ exercise actually is a catch. It bears a vision that posits once a contingent development path as a model for all. And whether we see it or not (and particularly when we don’t see it), that view deeply inscribed in the mere categorization of the world between developed and developing countries shapes the international cooperation and related geostrategic calculus — whether in the political, economic or financial domains. In those conditions, development becomes a zero-sum game and a challenge to beat the clock, since those ahead will always be on the way of those behind (advantage of the first movers and dependencies of the “laggards”), unless they miss not a battle but a revolution altogether.

What is particular about ICTs for Africa, then? If ICTs had ever been able to help leapfrog any development process, it would have to be by offering the possibility to break away from the framework above. Policy is a crucial tool to enable that to happen. For the transformative potential of ICTs to be released in Africa, people (communities as well as individuals) would need to be exposed to these tools as much as they are to their problems – it is in that face-off that enduring innovative solutions can emerge from the very people that are affected by the problems to be resolved, or with their participation, which is the best way in my view to achieve sustainable development. Otherwise stated, the most potent way to release the transformative potential of ICTs is to allow the optimal conditions in which they can release people’s own transformative abilities. The least policy could do in that regard, and the first thing it should aim for, is to enable availability, access and affordability of the tools – which still is a challenge in large parts of Africa.

I would suggest that the most important policy goal for Africa to tackle still is access. There is a need to coordinate the use of different infrastructural resources to reach for the largest possible coverage at affordable costs as well as to foster relevant applications. In that regard, policy advocacy and policymaking may focus on the following items and objectives, among possible others as local and regional conditions require: SAT-3/WASC cable infrastructure and radio spectrum resources are still to be optimally exploited; the update and harmonization communications regulation frameworks may spur regional entrepreneurship and local businesses; more coherent policies and accountability regarding commitments towards social applications of ICTs such as in the sectors of education, health and gender balance, etc.

As to the question of the relationship between internet and human rights, it is a complex one partly because of the multiple facets of what we call internet. Internet is infrastructure, medium and contents – and in some ways the relationships that network of networks enables between people all over the world. Contrary to most past media, it cannot be limited to one specific function; it is ubiquitous and pervasive in terms of all human activities it can enable and support. In that sense, preventing people from internet access may result in seriously infringing upon their human rights. Is making internet available to people a human right? And what about access, affordability? It is hard to make a sweeping argument for the whole of the internet as a human right, but on the other hand we have to recognize that once such a transformative technology is in place, it changes the game so deeply and so widely that not allowing people to have access to it further leaves them behind (not just in terms of their material welfare but more fundamentally in terms of their dignity of human being capable to fully participate in the processes that impact their community).

Therefore I believe the focus should be on how the availability of, and access to, the internet or lack thereof may interfere with existing human rights and based on that promote a rights approach to the internet, including the ways it is being continuously designed and is evolving. In that regard, the call in Vint Cerf’s opinion piece in the New York Times of 4 January 2012 for the engineers and technical designers of the multiple parts that go into the internet to own their “tremendous obligation to empower users” as well as their “obligation to ensure the safety of users online” is a call for one of the most important and necessary pieces of the equation. Another one is the role of political and policy-making authorities.

There are many moving parts that make up what we call the internet. It wasn’t the first and hopefully, it is not the last technology of the human kind which enables communications and information flows and sharing. The Special Rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council wrote in his last year report that the “article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenant was drafted with foresight to include and to accommodate future technological developments through which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of expression. Hence, the framework of international human rights law remains relevant today and equally applicable to new communication technologies such as the Internet.” The questions then should probably be what human rights the internet enables and how are they impacted when people are kept away from it, and also: is there a completely new function that the technology enables humans to fulfill, which ought to be added to the existing human rights? Answers to those questions would guide how we tackle the relationship of the internet and human rights from a policy perspective.

About a century ago when the League of Nations held the first passport conference in 1920, they put forwards a resolution insisting that passport fee should not be given a fiscal character and should just be enough to cover the cost of the passport production. They didn’t think back then that the passport should be the fixture of the means of traveling which it has become today, and were still hopeful that the distrust and legitimate security concerns that the war had created will be soon resolved at some point and that the passport requirement policy would then be expired. The reason why an international resolution concerned itself with capping the price of the passport fee then (although many governments responded that this was a matter of national policy) was because they didn’t want governments to introduce discriminating factors regarding people’s human right to move freely. Yet they knew there were commercial components to that right as well, e.g., the price of the ticket for the railway ride which they didn’t claim to legislate or regulate.

The internet has a wider range of components and aspects than the railway. The technical design community has its responsibilities, public authorities have theirs, and probably the intermediary service and commercial entities have theirs, too. A finer analysis is needed as to how the practices of all those actors are impacting or may impact human rights in order to draw up a coherent and sound framework for a rights-based approach to the internet.