Do we have a digital rights divide?-Shaping the digital future.

Despite the technological advancement and the reduction of the digital divide in many African countries, the increased level of connectedness brings about new challenges for the vulnerable in society. Not only is a considerable portion of the population in Africa still disconnected or connected to an expensive or poor quality network, but also their rights online – such as freedom of expression, privacy and security – might be totally neglected, making them even more vulnerable in the digital space.

Across the African continent, a growing number of governments are implementing legislation and measures that curtail citizen rights to access and use the internet in a private, safe and secure way. For instance, the mandatory SIM card registration law implemented in most African countries, without the corresponding data protection law, places African citizens at risk of government surveillance, especially as the mobile phone is the main device to access the internet for most people.

Despite existing regional and international human rights instruments that recognise access to information and freedom of expression as fundamental human rights (for instance, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights), a growing number of governments are implementing measures that deny internet access during election time. 2016 will be remembered as the year of internet shutdowns in Africa, as 11 governments partially or totally shut down the internet during election days. Considering that in June 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) delivered a declaration on the promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, internet shut down actions are clear abuses of Internet freedom and human rights on the continent.

As a response to surveillance and shutdowns across the continent, people across African countries are increasingly using circumvention technologies and encryption tools to challenge the action of their governments. For instance, in Uganda, the three-day ban on social media in May 2016 did not stop nearly 15 percent of internet users (approximately 1.5 million citizens) from circumventing the block and accessing social media platforms by means of Virtual Private Network (VPN) software. People chose to subvert the ban to express their political dissent, in spite of the risks of prosecution.

But, the use of these tools requires one to have a smartphone and to have some basic knowledge on VPN, encryption and anonymity online. With this gap in mind, a new divide is expected to emerge between those who are aware of their digital rights and those who are unaware of what their digital rights are and do not have resources – skills, means and capabilities – to enforce these. We refer to this phenomenon as “digital rights divide”.

During the Stockholm Internet Forum 2017 (#SIF2017), join the debate on the “digital rights divide” with experts on cyber-policy issues who are invited to share their views on what digital future holds for the socially, economic and politically marginalised. The Beyond Access surveys currently being conducted by Research ICT Africa in several African countries (i.e. Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique , Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Tanzania) are presented as a bottom-up research approach to collect empirical evidence on the constraints on digital inequality.

Specifically, the beyond access surveys deliver nationally representative data not only on ICT access and use across demographics but from this year, a set of specialised questions on cybersecurity, freedom of expression and privacy protection, have been included in the questionnaire to seek to answer the following questions:

1) Who are the vulnerable of society? 2) What is their level of access to ICT?

3) What type of access do they have to ICT? 4) Do they contribute to “shaping their digital future“? How?  5) Are they aware of their digital rights? 

6) If so, how do they enforce their rights (or defend themselves) from threats on digital rights violation? 7) Do different stakeholders engage with them and how?

The debate at #SIF17 and the Beyond access surveys are a contribution towards the achievement of the 10th Global Goal for Sustainable Development which aims at “Reducing inequality within and among countries”. In this instance, our focus being on digital rights inequality. It is our contention that debates on the digital rights should tackle cyber policy and regulation also from the perspective of the vulnerable in society as these people not only are currently excluded from any debate on digital rights, but also because they might be unaware on how – or not have the resources – to defend themselves from digital rights violation. RIA research on digital rights in Africa will seek to provide recommendations towards progressively achieving greater equality on digital rights awareness and enforcement. Issues on how to ensure enhanced representation and voices of people marginalised from the Internet in the decision-making of digital rights in order to deliver more effective, credible, accountable and legitimate cyber-policies will also be discussed and investigated.

 

By Enrico Calandro, Senior Researcher-Research ICT Africa.

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