Inside the Information Society: Internet governance needs African experience of African issues

Each week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog reviews what this year’s African School on Internet Governance said about Africa’s Internet governance priorities.

I spent last week at the annual African School on Internet Governance – AfriSIG for short – which is organised by APC and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). This post’s in two parts – the first about AfriSIG itself, the second some reflections on the issues raised.

What is AfriSIG?

First, let’s describe the School. Forty people from across the continent, from different backgrounds – government and business, civil society and media, technical and far from technical. All engaged with the Internet in different ways. Each with experiences and knowledge of the Internet as it affects their countries that should be shared across national and stakeholder boundaries.

There’s fierce competition to win places: 800 applications this year for the forty slots on offer. That’s not surprising. The Internet’s as important to Africa as every other continent, but it’s under-represented when it comes to its global governance. There are fewer opportunities for experience sharing in Africa than Europe, where travel’s easier and there’s better connectivity. A lot of people want to take those opportunities that are available.

AfriSIG’s intended to ‘build Internet governance leadership’ for Africa’s future. Like most good leadership initiatives, it’s driven by its own dynamic. African experience is shared, between stakeholder groups, across communities, countries and regions. There’s a mix of technical and public policy issues under discussion, and it’s the connections between them that get most attention.

Enthusiasm and participation are high, and for good reasons. It’s immersive, interactive, and relevant to its participants’ countries, contexts, jobs. Part of what makes it is the ‘practicum’, a week-long exercise in which participants role-play negotiators tussling over a controversial issue on the Internet. Last year: zero-rating. This time: Internet shutdowns. The intensity of debate, brinkmanship and art of compromise this year were remarkably like those in real negotiations. And consensus was reached out of controversy.

Raising Africa’s profile in Internet governance

African discussion of African experience of African issues, then. And a model that could be followed by initiatives elsewhere. The rest of this post’s concerned with the need to raise the profile of African views on African issues in international Internet events.

A lot of time and energy’s spent at large-scale Internet events on challenges like ‘connecting the next billion,’ or using the Internet to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Much of what’s said, though, comes from Northern voices and from global businesses. Africa’s voices (plural) need to be heard more forcefully, with more diversity, in setting those agendas. What might they say? I’ll pick three themes from this year’s AfriSIG.

Access – and what goes with it

Access, not surprisingly, comes first. Thirteen per cent of the world’s population lives in sub-Saharan Africa, but just seven per cent of its Internet users live there. The number of fixed and mobile broadband subscriptions per hundred people worldwide was estimated by the ITU at 12 and 49 respectively this year, but at less than one and 29 respectively in sub-Saharan Africa.

Access isn’t just about connectivity, of course, but also affordability and capabilities. Unless efforts are made – by governments, businesses, development actors – to address those aspects of access, it will be hard to translate all that talk about the Internet’s development potential into better outcomes on the ground. As the World Bank noted earlier in the year, progress to date’s been disappointing.

And inclusion isn’t just about access; it’s also about participation. The global Internet won’t be fully global until Africa’s producing, as well as consuming, its fair share of content. At the moment, just 1.3 per cent of Wikipedia edits are made in Africa. Discussions in international fora need to pay as much attention to these issues as to connectivity.

Changing the ethos of IG discussions

Second, ensuring that African experience of the Internet’s fully reflected in international thinking. For all the effort that’s gone into making them inclusive, global internet events still often have a Northern ethos.

Longstanding Internet insiders have mostly grown up in market economies with democratic governments and prosperous economies. The Internet for them is the established norm, generally accepted as the platform for the future, rather than a work in progress. But that isn’t everyone’s experience. The Internet’s not yet available to many Africans, especially in rural areas, especially in Least Developed Countries.

Multistakeholder engagement likewise. That’s harder to achieve in small countries, with small Internet communities, poor communications infrastructures, few civil society institutions and limited financial resources. Asked which stakeholders were most influential in Internet decision-making, across the continent, AfriSIG participants responded overwhelmingly: their governments.

The most important issues in Internet governance in Africa aren’t just the same as those elsewhere. Who, for example, should be responsible for managing national domains? That question’s undebated in Europe now; still unresolved in some countries in Africa. Why has it taken so long to deploy IPv6, complete the transition to digital television or introduce legislation for data protection? What steps can be taken to liberalise availability of spectrum? What should be done about the upsurge there has been in Internet shutdowns in Africa, and how can African stakeholders inject Internet rights into national governance?

These were all questions raised in AfriSIG. Global Internet discussions should recognise more than they do that for many people those topics are the starting point for discussions on the Internet, rather than the latest, most exciting innovations. Achieving that requires – my third point – more and more diverse African participation in international debates.

Increasing African participation

Fifteen years ago, with colleagues, I wrote a report – Louder Voices – that looked at developing countries’ participation in decision-making at the ITU and ICANN.

A lot has changed since then – not least expanded membership and participation in ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (the GAC) (though not all participating countries participate that much). Africa’s regional and sub-regional fora – including NEPAD and the African Union Commission, Internet bodies like AfriNIC, and some of the continent’s Regional Economic Commissions – are also now much more engaged with Internet issues. The continent has continental, regional and national IGFs.

But there’s been enormous growth as well, in that time, in the scope and scale of international fora concerned with Internet governance, particularly in areas like cybersecurity. A paper for the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development identified over 600 such initiatives two years ago, and some say that it only scratched the surface.

It’s hard enough for African governments to engage effectively in this new plethora of governance. How much harder, then, for African business or African civil society to do so? There’s an obvious risk that this plethora will be dominated by governments and businesses with money and resources, with little participation from Africa and other developing regions; and African participation likewise.

No one in the Internet community wants that. But if it’s serious about greater inclusion (greater multistakeholder inclusion), then it needs fresh thinking about the ways in which it can develop meaningful participation. This isn’t just about providing funds to go to meetings (welcome as those can be). It’s also about retooling the modalities of decision-making in ways that make processes more accessible.

The Louder Voices report, fifteen years ago, recommended ways of improving knowledge sharing and knowledge management, rationalising meetings and agendas to make them more accessible to those with fewer resources, reducing the costs of participation, and developing stronger links between the Internet and other public policy domains. But those were for an earlier time when governance was less extensive and less complicated.

Before the number of IG initiatives spirals out of reach, I’d suggest another look at how to make them more accessible and more inclusive to African stakeholders, involving all the continent’s stakeholder groups in ways that allow them to focus on what matters most to them. Not least among them, graduates of AfriSIG.

Next week’s post will propose a short history of the Internet and ask what it suggests about the future.

David Souter is a longstanding associate of APC, and has worked for more than twenty years on the relationship between ICTs and public policy, particularly development, environment, governance (including Internet governance) and rights. David writes a weekly blog for APC, looking at different aspects of the Information Society, development and rights. David’s blog takes a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. It comments on current topics and international meetings, draws attention to new reports and publications, critiques assumptions and suggests alternative perspectives. The views are his own, not APC’s. We hope that they will stimulate discussion, and that others will contribute their ideas in complementary blogs in future. More about David Souter. Follow him on Twitter .
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