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African Internet Rights. Whose rights are these anyway? was the provocative title of a panel that explored how policy frameworks affect human rights on the continent.

“Declarations are important, but implementation is the key issue,” was a core idea of the session, which touched on how initiatives like the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms can benefit policy makers, the business and technical community, civil society and individuals.

Web Foundation’s Nnenna Nwakanma highlighted the importance of the internet as “a common good, a global good, that should be protected as the air and water.” She stressed, “If we want everyone to have access to the internet by 2020, we need to change the way we think about internet access, affordability, a change in policy in the way we look at freedom of expression and freedom of information.”

Participants addressed the importance of data privacy in the context of increasing surveillance and censorship. “With few exceptions, like Angola and Benin, there are no data protection laws in Africa,” researcher Ephraim P. Kenyanito stressed. “We have seen how many governments in our region are involved in Hacking Team revelations. What are we doing to hold them accountable?” he asked the audience.

“Nigerian authorities have gone to the extent of calling for censorship of social media on Twitter,” ‘Gbénga Sèsan, director of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, added. “There are no data privacy laws in Nigeria, which has a dramatic effect on human rights. We need to remember that words like zero rating, data protection, access, that we keep repeating at venues like the IGF, are not abstract concepts, they have a fundamental effect on people. They can mean the difference between life and death,” he said.

These shortcomings lead to countless bloggers, activists and human rights defenders being arrested, APC’s Emilar Vushe stressed. “Throughout Africa, we are access denied. Authorities often shut down internet when it suits them, and internet rights defenders like APC’s partner Alaa Abdel Fattah are imprisoned.”

“We have many rights instruments in Africa collecting dust,” a participant from Gambia commented. “I am worried this can be the case also for the African Declaration on Internet Rights,” he said, to which Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, responded: “It is a trend in human rights law that translation of human rights laws has to happen at a local, national, regional level. Otherwise, we lose the ability to educate ourselves and enforce our norms. Please use the principles in your local litigation efforts.”