For a continent with a long history of dictatorship and control, the massive freedom afforded by the Internet seems to be irksome for most African governments. As they recognise the importance of the Internet, a number of strong-arm tactics have been employed to control its use.
According to a 2019 report on Digital Rights in Africa by Paradigm Initiative, there has been a sharp contrast between how the Internet is bringing development to Africa and how governments have focused more on control and promoting a climate of fear.
“In Africa today, drawing from Chinese and Russian models of Information Controls, the information space is now perceived as a legitimate theatre of conflict – much the same way as land, air and the sea are established theatres of conflict,” the report states.
Between 2016 and 2019, the governments of several African countries shut down the Internet for political reasons. Sudan, Chad, DRC, Ethiopia, and the Republic of Benin are some of the more prominent examples in 2019.
These events have not come without some costs. As Techpoint reported earlier, the global cost of government-motivated Internet shutdowns was about $8.05 billion in 2019, with sub-Saharan Africa alone accounting for a $2.16 billion loss.
Where shutdowns are not in place, there are usually some forms of legislation — passed into law, or going through parliamentary reading — to help guide the use of the Internet and mitigate the spread of misinformation.
The Republic of Benin was one of the first in Africa to adopt a law guiding the use of the Internet as the Digital Act adopted by the country’s National Assembly in June 2017 came into force in April 2018.
Earlier this year, Ethiopia also passed its Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation Bill (now an Act) into law, in a bid to curb hate speech and misinformation.
While some reports have indicated that social media and the Internet have led to a massive spread of misinformation and might be affecting democracies negatively, according to Techpoint’s discussion with Ridwan Oloyede, a cybersecurity and data protection lawyer, this is not a problem that will be solved by Internet censorship or hate speech laws.
The cloak of COVID-19
The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa has put a lot of strain on its less than stellar medical facilities. With various technologies, however, the process of tracing possibly infected persons could be eased to a large extent.
One of the most popular methods is contact tracing, a process where a contact tracer closely interviews a patient and deduces who else might have been exposed to the virus by the infected person.
Telecommunications technology could also offer a more targeted approach with the use of location history data from the mobile phones of confirmed cases, to help curb the spread of the infection faster.
The location of every mobile phone user could be assembled into a single searchable database that could be back-checked against the location history of infected persons.
This method, in combination with some others, has been used to great success by some countries globally. Without having to resort to a lockdown, South Korea reportedly uses a combination of credit card transaction records, CCTV footage, and cell phone location data to trace and curb the spread of the virus.
Due to the initial vagueness of South Africa’s directive on the use of mobile phone tracing, it had to be revised to show what information will be used, how long it will be used for, and if it will continue after the pandemic.
While this seems like a brilliant initiative, the obvious implication is that governments have access to their citizen’s information and locations, raising a number of privacy issues in the process.
While most legislations allow for tough measures in cases of emergencies, so far, there has been scepticism from bodies such as the Paradigm Initiative and Privacy International, regarding the enforcement of such measures. This could be linked to the fact that other instances of surveillance or censorship are usually cloaked with something positive.
Based on recent events since the lockdown of most African countries, these fears are not without merit.
In the Republic of Niger, Kaka Touda Mamane Goni, a journalist who publishes news reports on Twitter and Facebook, was arrested by authorities, for releasing information about a COVID-19 patient.
In Kenya, which has already adopted mobile phone tracing, Elijah Muthui Kitonyo was arrested for spreading misleading information on Twitter about the whereabouts of a COVID-19 patient in Kenya.
Elijah Muthui Kitonyo aged 23 years has been arrested in Mwingi for publishing misleading and alarming information on Corona virus.
He will be charged for publishing false information that is calculated or results in panic contrary to section 23 of the Computer Misuse…
— DCI KENYA (@DCI_Kenya) March 15, 2020
Another adopter of mobile phone tracing, South Africa, has also introduced a law that criminalises the spread of misinformation about COVID-19, a scenario that could lead to a six-month prison sentence, in addition to a fine.
While emergency technology measures might be useful to tackle COVID-19 to a large extent, the continent needs to really take human and digital rights into consideration during and after the pandemic.
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