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Mapping Trends in African Government Internet Freedom Restrictions

By Guest Writer on March 16, 2022

Internet Access freedom

Internet freedom in Africa has been on the decline over the past years with several countries continually adopting aggressive and sophisticated measures that curtail internet freedoms. Most of the governments of the affected countries have turned internet shutdowns into a tool of political hegemony and control for political stability.

In fact, governments are more than ever before, using digital technologies to surveil, censor and suppress fundamental and basic freedoms of their people through among others censorship, filtering, blocking, throttling and internet shutdowns. The curtailment and regression has been primarily characterised by the proliferation of retrogressive and repressive policies and laws that criminalise online communication and dissent, such as in Tanzania, Rwanda, and Malawi.

For instance, some governments such as Kenya have used the need to control “fake news” as an excuse to introduce restrictive laws, while others such as Tanzania and Uganda, are employing Computer Misuse laws to arrest and prosecute government critics, on charges of “offensive communication” and cyber harassment.

On August 1, 2019, Ugandan Dr Stella Nyanzi, an academic and human rights activist, was convicted for cyber harassment (and acquitted of offensive communication) against president Yoweri Museveni under sections 24(1) and (2)(a) of the Computer Misuse Act 2011. Likewise, a number of people have been charged in Tanzania for “insulting” President Magufuli on social media under section 16 of the Cybercrime Act, 2015, which essentially prohibits the publication of false information.

Mapping African Internet Freedom Restrictions

Mapping Trends in Government Internet Controls sought to document the extent to which government controls of the digital space affect/limit Internet Freedom in Africa since the year 1999 in 13 countries. The study focussed on the proliferation of retrogressive or repressive policies and laws; surveillance and surveillance capacity of governments; digitization programmes; censorship; demands on private sector actors; and the new frontiers like the introduction of Internet related taxes.

The study also sought to identify measures that can secure internet freedom in Africa and inform policy makers, the media, academia, technologists, civil society and other researchers on the policy, legal, institutional and practice landscape with a view of identifying opportunities for improvement of the digital space.

The continued surveillance of the public with limited oversight, in addition to the increased surveillance capacity of governments, and the interception of communication including critics and human rights activists threaten internet freedom. These measures have been coupled with regulatory control of the internet, including the now widespread and restrictive measures such as censorship, filtering, blocking, throttling and internet shutdowns evident in several countries.

eGovernment Has Advanced Service Delivery

It should be noted that governments have over time embraced the integration of Information Communication Technologies (ICT), including internet-powered applications and services, in government functions and operations. This has partly revolutionised service delivery by partly promoting government efficiency.

Further, several governments are rapidly introducing digitalisation, e-government and digital identity programmes that require citizens to provide detailed personal information, including biometrics for voters’ cards, identity cards, and driver’s licences, among others. This has been in addition to the requirements for SIM card registration.

While sections of society welcome some of these measures as necessary to enhance security and government service delivery, they enhance African states’ surveillance capacity which in turn affects citizens’ digital rights such as privacy, expression and access to information.

Government Has Advanced Digital Controls

Several governments have continued to demand cooperation from actors in the private sector to facilitate the interception of communications and to hand over the call data of subscribers. Social media has also emerged as a battleground where governments have sought to control conversations through their elaborate propaganda machinery especially during election periods.

The use of social media bots and paid influencers to spread fake news has become widespread too, as have concerted efforts to muzzle critics through arrests, threats, intimidation and targeted cyber-attacks.

Developments in the financial sector have seen the introduction of new technologies including in mobile money, e-commerce, fin-tech services and mobile loans. Governments e.g. in Kenya and Uganda have introduced new internet-related taxes on data bundles, internet access and Over-The-Top (OTT) services. Indeed, evidence from countries like Uganda8 has shown that increased taxation undermines the ability of sections of the public to access internet services.

Digital Authoritarianism is Increasing

While digital authoritarianism has been in existence for decades, it is clear that its use by authoritarian regimes to surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations is a tool of state control over their rights. If left unchecked, democracy and internet freedom will continue to regress.

While ensuring security is critical to the enjoyment of human rights, the implementation of security measures in the absence of key safeguards is in itself, a threat to the very rights sought to be protected. It is therefore important to situate the on-going discussions around internet rights by providing an in-depth analysis of the trends of how government policies and practices have shaped and are restricting digital rights in Africa over the last 20 years.

An edited synopsis of Mapping Trends in Government Internet Controls by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa

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