Maverick Citizen


‘Liberty, Equality, Connectivity’ — the fight for a free internet in SA is Launched 

‘Liberty, Equality, Connectivity’ — the fight for a free internet in SA is Launched 
The Right2Know Campaign's Moketsi Monaheng speaking at the launch of Friends of a Free Internet. He explained that if there is still inequality in smartphone access and internet infrastructure, the fight for a free internet cannot be complete. (Photo: Maru Attwood)

South Africa is the most economically unequal country in the world. So it’s no coincidence that digitally, we’re also deeply divided. And according to speakers at a launch of the Friends of a Free Internet on Thursday, it’s a gap that’s only deepened as the internet has become more data intensive. 

In the face of this digital divide, the campaign led by Yetu Infotech Collective and the People’s Media Consortium is agitating for “a communication commons that is free as in mahala and free as in freedom.” 

On Thursday 14 June, the Friends of a Free Internet was launched by representatives from over eighty civil society groups online and at five hybrid conferences held in Joburg, Durban, Cape Town, East London and Bloemfontein. Drawing together speakers and their visions for a more equal, liberated and sustainable digital world, it illustrated the internet’s remarkable ability to enable sharing and connection

Free as in mahala

As a hybrid event, the campaign’s launch was also a microcosm of some of the issues it is aiming to tackle. Joining virtually via a fibre connection from his workplace, Trevor Shaku, spokesperson of the South African Federation of Trade Unions, emphasised that many of the people who need a free internet most weren’t present at the campaign’s launch. Prepaid data costs to learn about the event, let alone attend it, remain prohibitively high for South Africans who are unemployed or dependent on social grants.

The tireless work of activists through campaigns like #DataMustFall paid off with the Competition Commission forcing mobile networks to lower prices of data meaningfully in the past few years. According to researcher Tapiwa Chinembiri, mobile network giants like Vodacom and MTN have been obliged to cut the cost of 1 GB of data to costs to just over half of what their 2017 prices were.

But the Friends of a Free Internet is adamant that “lower” is not low enough. Chinembiri said the cheapest 1GB data bundle in South Africa is still R78. Smaller bundles remain much pricier per megabyte. The campaign is planning to fight until these costs are down to zero.  

Many activists emphasised that the free internet that we so desperately need is not possible under capitalism and that changes to the internet need to be systemic ones that address the deep inequalities in our global economic system.

Yet many of the changes they are advocating for are almost more immediate; part of the fight for a free internet is simply an infrastructure issue. Expert on universal accesses Charley Lewis and the Right2Know Campaign emphasised that South Africa needs to increase our internet facilities, especially in rural areas. 

Torong Ramela Ramela of the Communications Access Organisation of South Africa

Torong Ramela Ramela of the Communications Access Organisation of South Africa (pictured) emphasised a pressing need to address South Africa’s growing digital divide at the launch of Friends of a Free Internet. (Photo: Maru Attwood)

Partway through the day’s events, failing infrastructure disrupted the conference as midday rolling blackouts caused speakers’ internet connections to falter and switched off the screens of those watching at hybrid locations. 

What’s looking like it will be South Africa’s worst year of rolling blackouts is stifling much of our progress in increased internet connectivity. Kgopotso Magoro, who spoke about creating bottom-up community networks for meaningful internet use in rural Limpopo lamented: “We are discussing free internet but we don’t even have energy.”

Aware of the immensity of the task they face and the kind of systemic and political change needed to enact it, Friends of a Free Internet is ready to build the strength of civil society in holding government accountable for the ambitious promises it has made about internet access.

For example communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni has committed to providing 10 GB of free internet to every South African household, regardless of income level, by 2025. This is a goal that speakers Friends of a Free Internet would like to see carried through.

After this year’s spectrum auction, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) will require all mobile networks to zero rate critical public benefit sites. Zero rating could meaningfully increase access to jobs, education and health services but speakers also cited concerns about net neutrality and creating a two-tier internet system, where free services exist but are much lower quality than paid services — much like South Africa’s two-tier education and health systems. 

Free as in freedom

Friends of a Free Internet emphasised that even access to the internet at no cost will be insufficient if all we have are our current outdated and flimsy protections to freedoms and privacies online.

Read in Daily Maverick: Africa needs to adopt common, democratic positions on nations’ internet freedoms 

Activist Tshiamo Malatji expressed unease about the seemingly inevitable tendency of big for-profit tech companies (even those who claim to protect privacy like DuckDuck Go) to collect detailed data about users. Speaking on Thursday he said: “Corporations are more powerful than governments….their immense power and control over us makes it easy for them to overrule what local governments are doing, especially governments outside of the US.”

Yet surveillance is often in our government’s interests too. Though Malatji said that they can be incompetent and unreliable, digital rights specialist Murray Hunter emphasised that “state security agencies have shown themselves to be completely involved in politicised spying, both at the elite level of politics and also at the grassroots level of protest movements and civic organisations.” 

Braamfontein, Johannesburg was one of five locations for the hybrid launch of the Friends of a Free Internet. The campaign has been initiated to unite civil society to make the internet free for all and protect online privacies and freedoms in the context of surveillance capitalism. (Photo: Maru Attwood)

State surveillance continues to pose an intense concern in South Africa, despite last year’s Constitutional Court’s ruling that Rica, the law that regulates communications interception, needs to be tightened to prevent more mass interception that has allowed state security agencies to spy on journalists, activists and other citizens. 

Read in Daily Maverick: The awful state of SA’s lawful telecoms interception, Part One

Friends of a Free Internet is committing itself to confront the for-profit incentives and political motives that drive surveillance while advocating for far stricter regulation and protections to create an internet where digital privacy and online liberties are realities. 

Drawing on participatory democracy, secure open source software, community-owned internet infrastructure and policies that support people rather than corporations, Friends of a Free Internet is just beginning to chart their way forward. They plan to combine the idealism, popular support base and practical solutions that are seriously needed to confront some of the most powerful forces on our planet. DM/MC


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  • Gerhardt Strydom says:

    The fact that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world is a sad state of affairs with a significant effect on people’s well-being. The reasons for this are varied and (slightly) debatable.
    When one looks at the success story of countries like Norway then our approach to governance and macro strategy seems even more short-sighted and self-serving. Social grants may be necessary, at his point in time, for many to survive, but it is flawed and even regarded by some as counter-productive in the long term. When it comes to ideas such a free internet, the problem is, nothing is free … someone is paying for it (as with social grants). When political parties make promises such ‘plentiful jobs’ and ‘wealth by taking it from others’, I can only smile. Many desperate people may attach value to such nonsense, though. Populism is a dangerous social wave which thrives when governments don’t function properly.

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