Internet freedom, according to the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) 2016, means access to any kind of information through the internet. Free flow of information. Nothing should hinder your access.
However, the following issues must be considered: What is the authenticity of the information on the net? How was the data collected? Who did the validation of the data before processing it for users’ consumption?
Through a series of thought-provoking sessions, this grey area of internet freedom was explored at FIFAfrica 2016 through the participation of social media staff (from Google, Facebook and others), journalists and activists from various African countries.
While users may claim that connectivity is a human right, they need to be aware that governments and service providers including global corporations hold on to the personal information of millions of citizens. Users of the internet forget their responsibilities and seem to have turned social media into a fashion show arena. This practice may be more common among vulnerable persons, thus making it easy for predators to easily locate and make contact with them. Users’ misunderstanding of what to use the internet for has exposed them to risks. It is a responsibility of internet users to be informed, to know the positive and negative impact of posting their information on the net, whether on the senders themselves or millions of viewers out there.
The lack of knowledge on the use of the hardware components such as Bluetooth on our phone/computer systems can be a major challenge. Leaving Bluetooth switched on all the time or forgetting to sign out of email accounts when using public systems can lead to breach of integrity and loss of vital data.
Internet shutdowns have become a common practice by many governments for “protecting” the citizens. Since 2015 shutdowns have been recorded not only in Africa but in India, Turkey and China. The practice seems to have become the norm particularly during elections or social unrest. In Africa countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Uganda have shut down the internet during elections, ostensibly to ensure the safety of citizens. However, there is no evidence to link internet shutdowns with social unrest, which makes one wonder if governments are sincere about protection of their citizens’ security. Do governments factor in the cost of shutdowns?
Sometimes it is the fear of opposition parties that makes some African governments shut down the internet during elections, irrespective of the negative economic effect. This becomes more important as more African users take to social media and various other online tools to promote and sustain their small to medium enterprises (SMEs), including mobile money subscribers. In addition, the lack of communication can claim lives as well as fuel rumours.
The practice of mass surveillance, infringement of public rights, clamping down on media by the state, and excessive power granted to law enforcement agencies are used by many governments in addition to disconnection from internet, as weapons of control.
The aforementioned issues formed the focus of discussions during FIFAfrica 2016. How can these issues be resolved and communicated for all African countries to recognise citizens’ right to information as well as internet freedom?
Relevance of participation in this forum to the needs of Fantsuam Foundation
I was able to take part in FIFAfrica 2016, which was hosted by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), a fellow APC member based in Uganda, with the support of the APC Member Exchange and Travel Fund (METF). My participation at this forum has highlighted the need for Fantsuam Foundation to incorporate an internet freedom module in our Computer Usage Diploma and IT Essentials courses. Although the current curriculum introduces the students to the various social media, up till now there has not been an emphasis on the dangers inherent in their uses. While we have taken the issue of providing affordable internet access to our students and host communities, we must accept some responsibility for the judicious use of these resources so that the populace is not inadvertently exposed to the pitfalls of the internet.
When our users are alerted to the dangers of the internet, Fantsuam Foundation may be better placed to ensure that our users’ rights are protected and that they are made aware of the concepts of internet freedom. While it is true that our rural location and poor and expensive access to the internet may make the very notion of internet freedom a rather faraway or mainly urban preoccupation, the nature of the internet is such that the infringement of urban-based users’ rights is bound to have the same effect on rural users. Therefore, it is important that Fantsuam should remain fully informed of the efforts of Nigerian internet activists in securing, promoting and protecting internet freedom in Nigeria, and ensure that our users are regularly updated about such efforts.
Meeting other APC members and having the opportunity to visit the APC website readily while at the forum impressed on me the need for affordable internet access at Fantsuam. The current financial limitations have even affected how Fantsuam has been monitoring and refining its website and Facebook pages. The value of these online resources in building and maintaining networks cannot be over-emphasised. However, it seems most African members in attendance do not face the level of internet challenges that Fantsuam Foundation does. They all seem to have gone past the stage of depending on expensive VSAT access.
The IT Essentials course at Fantsuam should introduce a module on wireless community networking, as this will enable intra-connectivity and easier sharing of information and resources within a community. The only challenge will be getting a backhaul that will enable such communities to have access to the world wide web. Some APC members already have some expertise in this area and Fantsuam should explore collaborations with them with a view to building a critical mass of technicians who can help to deploy the technology more widely within our rural constituencies.
FIFAfrica 2016 also provided an opportunity to engage with a fellow Nigerian, Femi Longe, who works with Co-Creation Hub in the city of Lagos. His software specialty is an area that can be of immense benefit to the Fantsuam Computer-Based Test Centre. He has promised to explore future collaboration with Fantsuam Foundation.