Why African businesses need to be mindful of ICT legislation
Business Management

Why African businesses need to be mindful of ICT legislation

Since the nullification of the presidential election in Kenya, a lot of attention has been shifted to the role of technology, which is said to have contributed to the fraudulent results. The proceedings in the Supreme Court challenging the announcement of President Uhuru Kenyatta as the winner of the August 8th General elections highlighted a lack of knowledge in implementing technology according to the prescribed law.

The Kenyan law provides for the use of technology to identify voters through a biometric system and then to transmit results from polling stations. The success of the nullification of the presidential results was partially supported by lack of adherence to the set out regulations. Such malpractice can haunt a business to its detriment.

It is a reality that businesses are interacting with technology in every facet of their day-to-day tasks. Yet many entities lack an understanding of the connection between technology and the law.

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Some of the potential questions an organisation needs to ask are: Is open software completely free for commercial use? Who holds the rights to the use of a particular piece of software? How do I get to understand the various open source software licenses? What does the law state on technology use in my jurisdiction? Is my new innovative idea, infringing on any human rights? What do I do with customer personal information sitting in my servers? These questions can no longer be ignored.


How to understand open source licences

There are over 40 open source licenses that guide the use of software by third party developers. These include popular licenses such as BSD, Apache and MIT. But even though these licenses guarantee free use of open software, innovators in companies need to be familiar with open source licensing to avoid future pitfalls. A clear example is the BSD + patent license provided by Facebook by their JavaScript library React.JS.

Part of the license states that while using React.JS, individuals or companies who sue Facebook will have their license automatically terminated. Apache Software Foundation no longer allows new users to use the library. ASF moved the React.JS license to Category X, which hosts disallowed licenses on its infrastructure.

In this regard the company behind WordPress, Automattic has dropped its use of this library due to the unfavourable terms and conditions. Such tweaks in licensing can pose great dangers to innovative businesses.

However, Saidah Nash Carter, senior VP of Innovation Africa at Thomson Reuters supports the use of open software and cannot be ignored by executives.

“Open source and open innovation have similar ideals – just different focus areas – but both are developed in such a way to drive collaboration and concepts in real-time for the benefit of the business. Some organisations may choose to use such platforms with stakeholders, but some may strictly want to use it internally amongst their workforce,” Carter said.

She added that, “previously, organisations looked at open source when looking to reduce development costs, but today, most leaders acknowledge enterprise open source and believe it to be one of the mostly adopted technology platforms, as the impact, and the need to be more agile has become clearer.”

There are specialists such as SUSE who can customise open source software and integrate it to the needs of the company. These specialists can also crack open the license mystery. Here is a great comparison of the various licenses available.


What to do when there are no laws

Africa’s young technology industry has seen few or no laws regulating technology. So how can companies deploy new innovations and still be prepared for future regulations?

One solution to this dilemma is to use global standards. In the US for example, the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) legislation, puts stringent regulations on how companies should handle patient data.

One such company that employs global standards is MYDAWA. This firm enables users to order their prescribed medication through an online portal and have it delivered to the patient. This process includes users giving out some of their medical information to the company. Laws on how to handle patient medical information in Kenya are still not in place. Yet the company decided to use global standards to secure patient data.

Nicky Nyamasyo, head of IT at e-health company ION Kenya, the firm behind MYDAWA said that the country is still working on legislation to govern patient data and hopes they will be passed soon.

In an article on ITWeb Africa, Nyamasyo said they have adopted global standards to protect and secure patient data including implementing security features and enhanced privacy to their system, mirroring the HIPAA rules.

Even though following global standards is a good way to get started, executives should be aware that local laws could still pose a hindrance to innovation.


Why big companies must begin to participate in legislation

Many countries in Africa have adopted an ICT or innovation ministry or department. This sets out to construct legislation that intersects with technology.

Big companies have a lot to lose if legislation does not favour them. It is therefore imperative that before laws are passed, companies come forth to give their input. In emerging democracies, public participation in crafting new laws is a norm and companies should take advantage of this provision wherever available.

However, legislation usually follows innovation. In this case, companies should be proactive to make sure their legal professionals are educated in technology. Lawyers who understand technology would be better equipped to point out pitfalls in new ideas.

“The role of the legal professional has evolved and today, coupled with changing industries, technology integration into different sectors as well as changing compliance and legal requirements, having an understanding of technology is critical to providing relevant consultancy and understanding the associated risks,” Carter said.

“The legal industry is navigating uncharted waters and in order to be forward looking and willing to define new rules (for a once very traditional industry) they need to understand technology. In fact, it’s better to understand what is happening within your sector and be a part of it than to wait on the side-lines,” she added.

However, it is hoped that as industries adopt technology, favourable legislation would be introduced, that would not stifle innovation but grow it to the benefit of the economy.


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Vincent Matinde

Vincent Matinde is an international IT Journalist highlighting African innovations in the technology scene.

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