Keynote Address at the African Internet Governance Forum by Dr. Alison Gillwald
KEYNOTE – AFRICAN INTERNET GOVERNANCE FORUM
Alison Gillwald (PhD) Executive Director: Research ICT Africa; Adjunct Professor: University of Cape Town.
Your Excellency the President of Tchad, the Honourable Minister of Post and ICT, other Ministers present, Ambassadors, consular generals and other members of the diplomatic corps, President of the African Union Commission and colleagues and comrades.
My congratulations to the Government of Tchad for having the vision of a vibrant African digital future and in so generously hosting this 8th meeting of the African Internet Governance Forum here in N’Djamena. The development of a resilient, safe and secure information infrastructure, the harmonisation of digital policies to enable inter-African trade and regional development, specifically to underpin the African Free Trade Agreement has never been more necessary. But the euphoria of what ICTs and the Internet in particular can do for economic growth and development has been tempered by developments associated with the intensification of digitalisation and ‘datafication’ of the economy and society that present us with some of the greatest policy challenges in the world today.
How do we harness the benefits of digital technologies while limiting the potential harms to citizens, enterprises, and indeed governments? How do we ensure digital inclusion of all people in this dynamic environment and how to we mitigate the risks associated with bringing large numbers of people online, many of them without the digital literacy to defend their rights online? How do we ensure not only that our countries are using the latest technologies of Artificial Intelligence or drones or blockchain for developmental purposes but that there is data justice for those on whom these technologies are being used or from whom their data is being extracted?
But, as we gather to consider these challenges, it is with great sadness that I great you as a South African at this moment in our history at an event underpinned by African solidarity. With the end of apartheid 25 years ago never again did I think that I would hang my head in shame when travelling abroad. Although I do not formally represent the Government of South Africa here today as a South Africa citizen and head of an African digital policy thinktank ,Research ICT Africa – which has worked with partners across 20 African countries for two decades – and which espouses the values of pan-Africanism learned from our intellectual forefathers Kwame Nkrumah, Sékou Touré, Leopold Sengor and others – I apologise for the shameful criminal attacks on foreign nationals in South African and call again on the South African Government to take decisive action to end the violence and protect the property and people affected by it as we have done together with many South African organisations. In the spirt of the Southern African concept of ‘ubuntu’ – umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – we reaffirm our common humanity and common cause in building an economically and socially unified continent.
This travesty highlights however, that as we deal with the challenges of digitalisation and datafication, we must deal with the structural inequalities that underpin our economy and society and which at times of economic crisis enable divisive forces to exploit peoples’ hopelessness to perform such iniquitous acts. We also appeal to governments who drive their citizens from their homelands in search of political refuge or economic survival to create the conditions for the continental revival we have so long wished for and spoken of and which under the right conditions, digital technology can drive, so that people can move freely and trade across the continent.
As if the destruction of property and violence was not enough, those committed to narrow nationalism and no doubt self-interest, have used these terrible events to drive an even greater wedge between our people and countries with the use of crude fake news to further inflame the situation and to spur retaliation.
The need for global cooperation to deal with this kind of harmful content is one of the greatest challenges we face today, whether a well-resourced stable country or a fragile state. That this misery could have occurred before the existence of the Internet is undoubtedly true. That people can be mobilized for whatever purposes almost instantly, is a sign of our times. That the events can no longer be denied or play down or ignored by authorities is certainly an Information Age phenomenon.
Sadly, the same characteristics of the Internet and social networks that make governments, corporations and public figures more accountable today are also abused to sow misinformation, to undermine democratically elected governments and to force undemocratic political outcomes.
The big data analytics that provides us with the potential to control and predict diseases or enable transport planning also enables more nefarious uses. And, I’m not just referring to activities on the Dark Web or traditional criminal syndicates using the Internet for illicit drug or human trafficking.
I’m referring to the kind of activities happening in the backrooms of establishment political parties in some of most mature democracies in the world and for geopolitical purposes between leading nation-states. The disclosures that have emerged around the activities of Cambridge Analytica in relation to the interference in the political systems of countries throughout the world, including in Africa, have raised serious questions about our ability to govern the Internet in the public interest.
Countries have grappled with the establishment of new institutions to deal with this challenging environment. Several, including in Africa, have now set up an information regulator. With evidence after a year-long investigation of the impact in relation to the Brexit referendum the UK Information Commissioner was decisive in fining Facebook five billion pounds for failing to keep private the personal information of its users that Cambridge Analytica used for its campaigns.
What emerged from these investigations was the willful use of data analytics in the US elections to arguably illegally influence the outcome. Together with evidence of Russian bots aimed at undermining Hilary Clinton’s credibility in the US elections, serious questions have been about the future of democracy. But the question on many people’s minds is 5 billion pounds enough to compensate those countries for the possible political and economic fallout associated with those outcomes?
Further what is clear that information governance can only be effective through international co-operation. At the annual Information Commissions’ International Conference held in South Africa earlier this year, commissioners pledged to work together to contain some of these threats which cannot be dealt with at the national level alone.
In Africa, we have also seen elections disrupted by arbitrary Internet shutdowns ordered by ruling parties to control alternate forms of expressing dissent in countries where the media is state-owned or controlled by ruling parties. This is equally a threat to fair electoral outcomes. The state of course has an obligation to protect their citizens but this cannot be abused for party-political purposes. Where violence or destruction of property or any breach of rule of law is promoted through the Internet, procedures need to be in place through an independent judiciary or independent electoral officers if at election times, to protect citizens and property if necessary through internet closures.
If countries are to be respected members of the international community and we will have to be to participate in global governance, we will need to align our practices with the UN Declaration of Human Rights which underpins international affairs and global co-operation. And how can we expect rights online when they do not pertain offline?
The point I’m making is that although they may take different forms, leaders in advanced economies are facing similar challenges to creating a safe, secure and trusted internet for their citizens. Doing so is critical to harnessing the social and economic benefits of the Internet. As we are in developing countries doing so through our own resources, institutions to do so may be a harder task. Further, our collective security and the building of trust are intertwined. What one country does or fails to do affects all the others.
This is because the Internet is part of an integrated ecosystem. From a cybersecurity point of view, for example, security of the global networks is only as strong as its weakest link. Therefore the failure of African countries to participate in forums of global governance or sign up to global treatise (and implement them) such as the Malabo Convention and Budapest Conventions, presents a risk to entire system. I believe only five African countries have signed and ratified, thus signing up to implement the Malabo Convention – Ghana, Guinea, Mauritius, Namibia, and Senegal and believe as of today Tchad. We applaud them for their representation of Africa in global online safety and security and data protection.
The rationale for global governance then can best be understood in terms of the Internet being a global public good. Our challenge is to find new forms of international cooperation and institutions that support the development of global public goods like the Internet. Africa has been very absent from these debates internationally and it is only through fora such as these that we can develop African positions that reflect common interests and our context if we are to influence global agendas and outcomes. But the task should not be underestimated. We are the most diverse region, with more than 50 states at different levels of development, different political systems, languages and cultures. As African countries we will have to put Africa first to make this happen. So we again applaud Tchad’s leadership in this African and global endeavor.
So let’s unpack what internet governance means in practice. Although global public goods require global governance, co-operation and co-ordination, they largely emerge in response to the extent that countries produce them at the national level – the internet does not exist as a global public good for Tchad until it is available in the country.
As with national public goods this also raises the question of who should pay for global public goods that serve the common interest? How can we leverage private sector resources to deliver public goods? How do we tax private sectors companies profiting from the delivery of global public goods? Should nations with the resources and skills to safeguard global public goods subsidise the safeguarding of global public goods, where there are not local resources to do so?
And how does global governance relate to realizing the public goods at the national level? What does this mean in relation to ensuring the delivery of an affordable and accessible Internet which it is trusted enough for citizens, enterprises and Governments to use in order to communicate, transact and produce on?
Essentially, governance of the Internet operates at three levels requiring different but interrelated forms of governance. What I have been highlighting are some of the challenges, at what might be considered the highest level – that of the content, applications level.
But the content does not exist without the Internet interface level, requiring a second layer of governance. And that only exists on the underlying transmission or infrastructure layer, which is essentially a precondition for the others, entailing our traditional sector and its configurations of competition and regulation.
It is at this second layer of governance of the internet interface level that cyberstablility and resilience are ensured through agreed protocols and standards developed by ICANN, the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Having evolved out of the US Department of Commerce and NTIA, the body is really constituted by the technical community – historically a mix of academic and private sector players with very little government involvement outside of the US Government. As ICANN migrated out of the direct control of the US government through the IANA transition process, multistakeholder structures were set up in ICANN but the participation by different statekholders is very uneven.
Regional technical bodies such as Afranic have been critical in providing professional and efficient distribution of Internet number resources to the African Internet community, and strengthening Internet self-governance in Africa through a bottom-up, community and multi-stakeholder policy processes. Afrinic is responsible for the distribution and management of Internet number resources – IP address space (IPv4 and IPv6) and Autonomous System Numbers (ASNs) – in its service region, which includes Africa and the Indian Ocean region.
Although one of the new board appointments is an African there are very few African represented in ICANN outside of the regional bodies. Although the size of the GAC Government Advisory Council, was increased and there is more African representation there, the decision-making role of the GACs is limited and the African countries that sit on it are largely not very active.
The mobilisation of African countries by the African Union Commission around securing the .Africa Generic Top-level Domain (gTLD) for Africa is a wonderful though sadly rare example of African co-operation and collaboration on Internet governance that we should definitely be building on.
This Internet interface is of course entirely reliant on the infrastructure and services layer and the extent and quality of this is dependent on effectively regulated competitive markets. This is where Africa suffers the greatest backlogs and where the conditions that face developing countries are quite different from those of advanced economies and mature democracies.
While supply-side constraints on accessing broadband infrastructure still exist in many African countries, in all African countries demand side constraints are now the biggest challenge to affordable and meaningful access to the Internet. In all African countries broadband coverage way exceeds the Internet penetration levels.
Of the 10 African countries surveyed between 2017 and 2018 by Research ICT Africa as part of the Global South After Access surveys, six of these had less, most of these considerably less, than the 20% penetration level required to reach the critical mass that unlocks the networks effects associated with economic growth and other positive social multipliers.
Even in a country such as South Africa with over 95% broadband coverage only half of the population is online. The other half look demographically no different than the nearly 90% of Rwandese or Mozambicans offline, or nearly 70% of Nigerians or Kenyans who remain offline. They are generally poorer, less educated and earn less income than those online. They are also more likely to live in rural areas, be woman and be older than the connected.
The main barrier to coming online is the cost of a smart device, and for those online the main reason for not using services more is the unaffordability of data.
To redress digital inequality in Africa, far more attention will need to be paid to measures that stimulate demand. The data available shows that besides affordability, human development – particularly education and therefore income – are the primary determinants of access, intensity of use, and use of Internet for production and not only consumption.
The development of relevant local content and applications in local languages, along with the enhancement of citizens’ digital literacy skills, are all important demand stimulants.
Our #afteraccess findings show that affordability remains a key challenge on the continent. Although cost drivers in developing countries are high as a result of currency volatility on equipment imports and the need for operators to develop parallel infrastructure like roads and electricity in rolling out their network, many causes of high costs can be reduced by governments and regulators.
The effective regulation of wholesale access and market dominance could also reduce the cost of broadband as a critical input into other sectors of the economy. What is also clear from the trends of our RAMP (RIA African Mobile Pricing Index) analysed alongside the survey data, is that even if cost-based prices in Africa were effectively regulated, the vast majority of Africans would still not afford the use the Internet in any sustained and meaningful way at current prices based on existing business models, licensing frameworks and spectrum valuing and use.
What we do know with even the inflated supply-side data available, is that at the speed with which we are connecting people to the Internet today, we can never meet SDG 2030 target of global connectivity. The lag will continue to be from the Global South and Africa in particular.
This means that to get Africa connected will require doing things differently than in the present and past. We need to explore alternative policy and regulatory interventions that do not assume mature, competitive, effectively regulated markets. Recognizing the constrained institutional endowments and resources that generally exist in African countries, we need to identify multiple strategies across the ICT ecosystem that will enable Africa to reach the critical mass and intensity of use needed for the network effects associated with broadband expansion.
We need to collaborate on developing local evidence bases (including supporting the AUC to collect all universal indicators) to inform innovative policymaking approaches that understands the need for a new interplay between state and market with novel access, service delivery, investment and risk models that leverage private and community know-how, low cost technology innovations, and complementary access solutions – deploying spectrum to create and extend the Commons (unlicensed spectrum) would be a key enabler. Deploying poorly utilised universal service funds to extend commercially available public wi-fi from elite urban areas, or other public resources to all public spaces, offers a viable way of increasing the intensity of use in urban areas and enhancing network effects that would contribute to more inclusive digital development.
We need even greater regulatory agility and insight to manage tensions between the different policy objectives of competitive efficiency, innovation and consumer welfare, as well as the safeguarding of the public and social value of the Internet through the extension of spectrum commons, unlicensed and social use spectrum. In developed and developing countries alike, most spectrum is largely unused outside main metropolitan areas. In the sharing-economy of the Internet era, we are already seeing voluntary infrastructure sharing by operators. These types of approaches need to be embraced by governments from a critical resources management perspective. Enabling secondary spectrum use would enable new dynamic spectrum sharing, which operates at a fraction of the cost of GSM network to be deployed on new business models in the largely unused spectrum in rural areas. Such an approach could almost instantly provide low cost, high quality bandwidth.
With the long-term evolution of 5G underway, African governments need to ensure that the potential of this next generation technology which operates within a spectrum-sharing environment with data off loads to proprietorial and open public wi-fi, is harnessed for public purposes not just niche commercial applications.
Finally, government must look to the counterproductive tax regimes applied in many countries to bring down costs and reduce the input costs into their economies. High excise duties on both devices and supplier equipment is a major contributor to the prohibitive cost of devices. Secondary taxes on mobile operators with low pricing structures in many African countries mean that countries are not reinvesting in network extension. This essentially subsidises the use of services for those already online but constrains reinvestment into underserviced areas.
Government rent extraction through irrational social networking taxes which essentially treat social networking – which is the driver of internet access – as a ‘sin tax’ are counterproductive to efforts to get people on line and to in fact as means of raising revenues, as it discourages people from use. We have demonstrated that such taxes have not yielded the intended sources of revenue for debt payments, and furthermore have eroded the regular company tax base by reducing the revenues of operators. Undermining the national delivery of these global public goods is unsound economically and morally as the taxes are highly retrogressive with the impact severest on the poorest. It has no impact on the bottom line of the global platforms that may be extracting profits from services offered in local jurisdications and for which they pay no tax.
Legitimate taxation of global service providers and platform generating mega profits from business activities in national jurisdictions in which they operate is something that all governments have a common interest in. But it will only be achieved through global co-operation and reciprocity. The G20 is pushing ahead with plans to close international loopholes used by tech giants to lower their tax bills and is developing jurisdictional rights to tax a company where its goods or services are sold even if it does not have a physical presence in that country. This legitimate and rightful tax is where African governments should be focusing their efforts in building digital ecnomies.
But until fundamental inequalities offline are addressed they will be replicated and even amplified online. In fact, as technology evolves from voice to data services and Over the Top platforms, Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence – is digital inequality is amplified. This we refer to as the digital inequality paradox. While connectivity is clearly a precondition of digital inclusion, connectivity in a data environment, on its own, does not redress digital inequality as more people are connected, digital inequality is increasing.
This is not only the case between those online and those offline (as is the case in a voice and basic text environment), but also between those who have the technical and financial resources to use the Internet optimally and those who are barely online.
This is one of the wickedest policy problems for us to address and until we achieve our vision of a digitally inclusive continental economy and society cannot be realised. Let’s take the opportunity we have over the next few days to put our best minds and souls together to create organic, indigenous African solutions to our problems.