Mark Zuckerberg’s recent public testimony in Washington revealed just how poorly most of us (and not only the aged senators) understand the level of control we’ve handed platforms over our personal data and even our politics. But while there now appears to be growing global consensus that internet platforms need to be better regulated following the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook revelations, the how and what of such regulations still need to be carefully considered and designed. Especially in Africa.
At more or less the same time that Zuckerberg and his senior policy wonks dodge questions in Washington and London while under the shadow of looming platform regulation, governments in Dodoma, Kampala and Nairobi are taking alarming detours in the race to regulate. They’ve started to restrict citizens’ ability to express themselves freely on platforms like Facebook using governance tools like internet shutdowns or restrictive policies – long before most of their citizens have even set a hypothetical foot in the networked society.
Take Tanzania as an example. Research ICT Africa’s recent household access and use surveys undertaken in 2017 found that only 14% of the population are connected in the country. The few Tanzanians who are connected tend to spend most of their time online on social media. But recent legislation in the country, the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations, 2018, now require anyone who publishes online content (e.g. a Facebook post, or a Tweet) to buy an exorbitantly-priced licence (USD900). The regulations, ostensibly designed to fight undefined “immorality” and hate speech, have already been used to arrest and question a local rapper on grounds of public “indecency” after posting a clip in which he kisses someone.
Similar regulatory trends are visible in countries like Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, and are worrying from a human rights perspective because they limit users’ rights to express themselves online. But the effects are even broader and long-standing. Governments’ tendency to shut down the internet, for example, have already cost African economies dearly: one report estimates that shutdowns cost Sub-Saharan Africa up to USD 237 million in just two years.
Besides these direct effects, knee-jerk regulatory responses to the internet also limit the region’s ability to benefit from the enabling effect that the internet can have for sustainable development in the future. The United Nations and other developmental agencies are optimistic about the potential that information and communications technologies can have for supporting Africa’s development (see, for example, the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, goal 9c). And internet access is also crucial as technology continues to change the future of work – simultaneously unleashing new opportunities for remote, cloud or microwork and obviating a vast number of current jobs.
Internet and platform regulation therefore needs to be especially carefully considered by African governments to prevent negative and debilitating consequences for economies, sustainable development, and citizens’ rights on the continent.
But not only governments are responsible for ensuring that the internet will be a force for good on the continent. Internet platforms like Facebook have started to play an increasingly central role in promoting connectivity on the continent. In Tanzania, for example, many of the country’s (few) internet users gain access to the internet through zero-rated services offered by mobile operators Tigo, Airtel, Vodacom, & Halotel in partnership with Facebook’s controversial internet.org initiative. (Zero-rating basically means that an operator exempts particular data from counting against a user’s data cap. A user who buys this package would then, for example, have ‘free’ access to Facebook and a limited selection of other websites selected by Facebook. The internet according to Facebook, in other words.)
Zero-rating isn’t unique to Tanzania, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing despite having faced significant criticism in countries like India. It is more important to ask what Facebook and other internet platforms’ duties are in safeguarding new users from, well, themselves. During recent congressional hearings Zuckerberg faced criticism for Facebook’s failure to prevent or address incidences of hate speech in Myanmar, for example. While we don’t want Facebook to be the arbiter of what amounts to hate speech, especially on our culturally rich and diverse continent, the platform does need to find a way of better dealing with content that can have significant, harmful effects for especially minorities.
Yet most platforms don’t seem to take much notice of such responsibilities as they rush to tap new markets and find new users. Failure to deal with these challenges can be exploited by governments to excuse bad regulatory responses, such as in the Tanzanian example. With greater connectivity comes not just greater profit margins, but also greater responsibility. DM
"By scepticism...we arrive first at suspension of judgement, and second at freedom from disturbance." ~ Sextus Empiricus