The thorny issue of internet freedom across Africa
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The thorny issue of internet freedom across Africa

Human beings are a very odd species. They don’t regard themselves as just another group among the myriad creatures that share this spinning orb we call Earth. No – they are a super-species, reinforced by the notion that they have “rights”. No other species has rights (other than those “granted” by humans).

After millions of years of evolution, we have arrived at the point where the development of technology ensures the supremacy of humans to the detriment of most other species. Even so, Nature still applies the “survival of the fittest” rule, so the supremacy is not universally beneficial. This means humans have a quality of life that ranges from luxurious to pitiful. Some humans use technology to oppress, others become oppressed through being denied access to technology.

How do rights fit into this scenario? Why are rights necessary? They are there to protect individuals and communities from the actions of others that would be detrimental to the continued existence of said individuals and communities. Which presumes that some members of the species will behave in such detrimental fashion. So, humans need to be protected from themselves. As I said, an odd species.

 

“United we stand…”

Sustainable communities work together to improve their collective chances of survival. They do so by conferring rights on the members of the community in return for the discharge of responsibilities by those members towards the mutual protection of the group. United Nations, United States, United Arab Emirates, African Union, European Union, Communication Workers Union… but does joining such a union create beneficial rights for all, or does it “dumb down” the rights available for some?

The underlying premise is that the rights of one imply protection from another. However, applying the rights of one is often at the expense of another. Who decides?

 

Freedom

In this technology-enabled, communications-networked world, the word “freedom” is integral to the expression of rights. Freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom from slavery, freedom of access to information… however, inherent in the need to stand united is the requirement to give up some freedom of choice by handing the power of the individual over to the collective leadership.

Individuals agree to be constrained by the rules of the community, to adopt standards of behaviour that are limited to the defined norms. They even agree to be punished for stepping outside the boundaries.

The right to freedom does not include the right to kill, maim, steal, rape, torture, drive while under the influence, disturb the peace, burn garden rubbish, drop litter, or incite riots.

 

The internet

Without getting into the debate of the internet with a capital I or a small i, we have seen a widespread tendency of governments depriving their citizens of access to all or part of the network for periods of time. Recently, Cameroonians were denied access for several weeks to English language web sites but not to French language ones. Actions such as these are accompanied by an outcry about the deprivation of those affected from their right to information, their right to freedom of speech and their right to freedom of (digital) association.

Does the government have rights? Its duty is to protect its citizens from criminal activities perpetrated against them. In earlier times, this might mean taking rabble rousers off the streets. In the 21st Century, this might mean taking rabble rousers off the social networks. It might mean closing down some or all of the network to remove the “ransomware” criminals who recently shut down a national health care service. It might mean shutting off users who have not registered their identity as SIM card owners. It might mean prosecuting authors and publishers of “fake news”.

But it should not mean preventing the electorate from accessing fact and opinion relevant to their voting decisions.

 

South Africa finding the line

In July 2016, South Africa voted against a United Nations (UN) resolution on the protection of human rights on the internet. Was it justified? Listen to South Africa’s deputy permanent representative to the UN office in Geneva, Ncumisa Notutela, on the vote:

Notutela said the resolution fails to “refer to acts of hatred propagated through the cyberspace, including cyberbullying. In this context, the main sponsors are certain that the exercise of the freedom of opinion and expression, on and offline, is not subject to limitations, is a false notion. The draft resolution omits key provisions on the permissible limitations and prohibition of hate speech under international human rights law.”

South Africa has a National ICT Policy that actively promotes affordable access to the internet and is about to launch its “Internet 4 All” initiative to turn the policy into reality. At the same time, the country is proposing that everyone who publishes any content on the internet must first have it approved by the Film & Publications Board. Giving freedom with one hand and taking it away with the other? The Minister of Communications may well subscribe to Mark Twain’s observation, “There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.”

 

Rights bring Responsibilities

Having rights is a “quid pro quo”. Unless the beneficiaries recognise that others have the same rights, they will be seen as oppressors. Having rights brings the responsibility to exercise them with respect – respect for the community that defined those rights and respect for the mechanisms that defend the existence of those rights.

If you abuse your right to freedom of speech by committing a hate crime, if you abuse your right to access the internet by holding innocent users to ransom, you must expect your rights to be removed. Criminals have the right to a fair trial.

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Adrian Schofield

Adrian Schofield has spent more than half his life working in and for the South African ICT industry at national, regional and global levels. For the last 10 years, he has conducted applied research for the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering and is currently serving as a Board member of the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA), the Africa ICT Alliance (AfICTA)... See More

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