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Addressing loopholes in digital and data rights in Africa: This is what it will take

Abdul Noormohamed
By Abdul Noormohamed

Luminate's Africa Director

Posted on Monday, 20 December 2021 09:48

Facebook and Twitter have swiftly become major sources of news

This year has seen several African governments clamping down on their citizens’ data and digital rights. Many have used the Covid-19 pandemic and election misinformation as reasons to infringe on these liberties, which global institutions such as the UN define as human rights.

With the number of Africans connected to digital technologies growing exponentially, and an internet penetration rate of around 43% across Africa, governments, state institutions and private companies are increasingly collecting, processing and sharing data about our online activity.

And while this practice itself is not nefarious, as it can help improve service delivery, across the continent, online rights are increasingly being curbed.

According to the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), poor or missing legal protections for personal data, the abuse of existing laws by state agencies and businesses, and poor digital practices are exacerbating the erosion of many African citizens’ data rights.

These include African states undermining digital freedoms by conducting real-time monitoring, surveillance of citizens’ social media platforms and intercepting telephone communications. A recently published research paper by the Institute of Development Studies examines surveillance legislation in six African countries, revealing how several states use surveillance technologies to target journalists, business leaders, activists and opposition politicians.

Shut it down

Internet shutdowns are also increasingly prevalent on the continent. Between January and May 2021, digital advocacy group Access Now documented at least 50 internet shutdowns in 21 countries, including in several African countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Niger and Congo Brazzaville.

In August, Zambia restricted citizens’ access to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, and disrupted the internet during the 2021 elections, arguing that this was a move to stop the spread of election misinformation. The opposition leader won the election in a landslide victory.

The erosion of digital and data rights on the continent and how to curb this growing scourge was the subject of a recent webinar hosted by Luminate, a global philanthropic organisation that supports partners advocating for the protection of data and digital rights, among other issues that are key for healthy democracies.

A report by Nigeria’s data advisory and analytics firm Stears Data, entitled: ‘Data & Digital Rights in Nigeria: Assessing the activities, issues and opportunities‘, was discussed by the panel.

Its findings and proposals serve as a microcosm for a generally dismal picture when it comes to the digital and data rights ecosystem in Africa.

The case of Nigeria

Although Nigeria has no comprehensive data privacy and protection legislation, there are various pending and enacted sector-specific laws that contain privacy and data protection provisions.

However, its constitution also provides that none of the rights granted to citizens will invalidate any law that is “reasonably justifiable in a democratic society”, such as legislation in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health or to protect the rights and freedoms of other persons.

Such legislative clauses allow for the continual infringement of people’s constitutional rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

Examples of the misuse and abuse of laws include the Nigerian Presidential Task Force publishing the passport details of 100 travellers as a penalty for failing to take a repeat Covid-19 test upon entry into the country this year, and numerous advocates, journalists and internet users being arrested for their online activities. Charges have included spreading false information about the pandemic and insulting government officials.

The cost of curbing digital and human rights

According to the Paradigm Initiative, a pan-African social enterprise working on digital inclusion and digital rights, many African governments are using the Covid-19 pandemic as a justification for punitive measures.

Paradigm executive director Gbenga Sesan cited examples during the Luminate webinar, of Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Nigeria leaking information of opposition party members on Facebook who had tested positive for the virus “to shame them”.

He warns that, increasingly, African citizens are being told that “privacy is dead.” This pervasive attitude within governments, which mostly do not have data protection laws, has led to a spike in the collection of biometric information.

What needs to be done

According to Abdul Abdulrahim, lead researcher of the Stears report, stakeholders such as civil society organisations, funders, private companies and government institutions need to work together to ensure better judicial and regulatory oversight so that free speech online and personal data are protected.

For that to happen, I believe we need three things:

  • One, we must take a united stand and tackle this pressing issue head-on.
  • Two, we must increase budgets to educate those trying to promote change, whether they are individuals, non-governmental organisations or the private sector.
  • Three, there is an urgent imperative to boost research to influence the government significantly and understand loopholes in digital and data rights.

At Luminate, we will continue to work with progressive governments and institutions, to push for more collaboration, education and research, towards the ultimate goals of transparency and privacy protection. If we fail to do that, data and digital rights will remain under threat on the continent.

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