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Internet Governance: Why Africa Should Take the Lead

Recently during an afternoon meeting with a friend of mine, Bob Ochieng, who happens to work for ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) Africa Operations, he lamented that at online Internet Governance discussions fora such as CircleID, and 1net.org, there is no serious frequent engagements from African Voices. This got me thinking and I realized that most African Internet Stakeholders would rather use a “wait and see approach” in matters as critical as Internet Governance.

There are various reasons for the “wait and see approach” which include lack of enough well trained experts on Internet Governance. This is the case as online discussion spaces at times are hostile to new entrants with little to no knowledge about Internet Governance. Or maybe it could be that Africans have other “more urgent priorities” such as Reforming the ICC, Combating HomoSexuality, banning the wearing of mini-skirts or other serious matters such as Poverty, Corruption, Food Security and HealthCare Reforms and therefore in matters of ICT we tell ourselves that we are justified to wait and see as the rest of the world takes the lead.

Another reason for the “wait and see approach” could be due to a “post-Cold War hangover.” This is the case where Africans not only politicians & governments but also the media see the world of Foreign Affairs & International Relations as an East versus West interaction space. This is in fact emphasized by the comparison of conditions for grant of aid to Africa from the Eastern Countries and those from Western Countries by prominent Authors such as Dambisa Moyo in “Dead Aid”.

In my opinion, the “wait and see approach” is gravely interfering with basic human rights of Africans such as Freedom of Information and Right to Data Protection. So far it is only 11 countries have enacted National Freedom of Information/ Expression Laws and eight African Countries on the Right to Privacy/ Data Protection.

Very few in Africa can remember that just as the revelations by Snowden were made public in 2013, a research was released whereby the Research was carried out by Harvard School of Public Health, which worked with Oxford University researchers based in Kenya at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Program and other colleagues from six other institutions. The researchers used mobile phone data of 15 million people in Kenya in order to build a picture of how the trips people make within Kenya might contribute to malaria transmission.

The research was a breakthrough for scientists and medical professionals since they “found that a surprisingly large fraction of ‘imported’ infections—that is, infections that are carried by people moving from one place to another—wind up in Nairobi, with infected residents returning there after journeys to spots such as Lake Victoria.” I am now skeptical but I would wonder how the information on travelling patterns of 15 million Kenyans will better cure malaria. Will Kenyans be barred from travelling to malaria prevalent areas so that they are not infected by malaria? My question is, though the data was used for a good purpose, this is not mass surveillance? Is mass surveillance not one of the critical issues informing 2014 Internet Governance Debate? Why did this not catch the eye of many Africans?

At the 24th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Civil society organisations presented the “International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance,” a set of standards that interpret States’ human rights obligations in light of new technologies and surveillance capabilities. The Principles are endorsed by over 260 civil society organisations around the world, and for the first time set out an evaluative framework for assessing surveillance practices in the context of international human rights law.

Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, while at the event, was of the opinion that: “technological advancements have been powerful tools for democracy by giving access to all to participate in society, but increasing use of data mining by intelligence agencies blurs lines between legitimate surveillance and arbitrary mass surveillance.”

Joining the High Commissioner was Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, who recently released a report which details the widespread use of state surveillance of communications, stating that such surveillance severely undermines citizens’ ability to enjoy a private life, freely express themselves and enjoy their other fundamental human rights.

These sentiments have also been echoed by the UN Secretary-General.

There are questions that I feel ought to be answered is how such crucial data is obtained from 15 million Kenyans and yet one can only receive such data if one is a Kenyan Citizen according to Kenyan Law.

Dilma Rousseff, Brazillian President is of the opinion that surveillance is a ‘breach of international law.’

“Friendly governments and societies that seek to build a true strategic partnership, as in our case, cannot allow recurring illegal actions to take place as if they were normal. They are unacceptable.”

Late November 2013, the issue of mass surveillance was discussed at the U.N. General Assembly level which also took a critical step in passage of a resolution which viewed mass surveillance as a human rights violation on the right to privacy

In Conclusion, African Countries ought to take a leading role in Internet Governance as this affects Africa too. This can include methods which are not limited to:

1. Sending experts to High Level Internet Governance meetings instead of junior officials with little to no knowledge of the discussion matter.

2. Using a multi-stakeholder format to consults with their citizens.

3. Passing of relevant laws such as Privacy/Data Protection and Expression/Freedom of Information to assist African Citizen.

By Ephraim Percy Kenyanito, Public Policy Specialist/ Regulatory Affairs Specialist/ Project Manager

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This actually holds good for many countries Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Feb 26, 2014 2:19 PM

I have seen this - having been on the fellowships committee of a couple of large conferences, and having done my share of outreach work. 

Along with all the points you mention (open and enabling government, multistakeholder local approach ..), for international organizations, outreach by holding events in country is by the way probably the only way to ensure that the right stakeholders in that country are reached.  ISOC is doing some very good things here by reaching out to, sponsoring and contributing content to regional technical conferences such as AfNOG and AfTLD in Africa.  M3AAWG is doing similar outreach work hosting events for ISPs, mobile carriers, datacenters and messaging providers in India - http://www.maawg.org/india/

Holding international conferences in “nice” locations sometimes has an unintended consequence - Government officials or senior company executives with no background knowledge get sent to important conferences, where they read out a prepared statement / do just enough so their presence is registered for a report back to their organization, and spend the rest of the time going off shopping / partying.

The real stakeholders don’t turn up and what you see at the international events are “steakholders” - either senior officials on their own funding, or a particular cross section that describes themselves as civil society but generally works far harder to make a case for fellowship to conferences rather than do on the ground work. 

And a fellowship committee being entirely from outside the country with no knowledge of the local situation means that sometimes, using the right key words is enough to get an undeserving individual a free ticket to the conference.

The only way around that is to build a trusted network of people in country who you know for sure do good work and are capable of furthering whatever outreach or capacity building initiative gets kickstarted.  And the only way to make those contacts, given that such individuals unfortunately may not get an opportunity to travel to key events, is for the events to come to Africa and Asia.

mass surveillance is not always bad Thomas Barrett  –  Feb 26, 2014 3:56 PM

My take-away from this is that mass surveillance can used to benefit society and the greater good.

The answer is not to ban it but to provide conditions under which it is acceptable to use.

Internet Governance: Why Africa Should Take the Lead Gideon Rop  –  Feb 27, 2014 7:01 AM

By the way just so you know, DotConnectAfrica has attempted to do that since long time ago. More should join in.

I think Ephraim mentioned that Africa needs more engagement Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Feb 27, 2014 7:10 AM

We have seen confrontation and we have seen commercial lobbying but very little actual engagement, in the example that you cite. So - I would say that if there indeed was an attempt, it did not quite produce the expected results.

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