Internet shutdowns major hindrance to digital rights inclusion in Africa, report


GSC technicians and innovators Emmanuel Kibe and Humphrey Mandela working on the Dual purpose wireless GSC farm net rooter innovated by GSC farm company at the Eldoret show. [File, Standard]

Internet shutdown across African countries remains the major hindrance to digital rights and inclusion, a report has shown.

The LONDA 2023 Digital Rights and Inclusion in Africa report indicates that Internet disruptions were unwelcome in 2023, featuring in 5 out of the 26 countries where the survey was conducted.

The report released on Friday urged African governments to refrain from internet shutdowns and targeted surveillance that affects human rights defenders, media, and civil society actors.

The report, titled Londa, is a call to action for every government and stakeholder to take their place in defending digital rights, which are human rights online and or enjoyed simply using digital technologies.

A digital rights group Paradigm Initiative (PIN) annually monitors the environment, documents violations, and reports on the state of digital rights and inclusion in Africa.

The title ‘Londa’ is of Zulu origin and echoes a call for action to protect and defend the digital rights and inclusion environment in Africa.

Londa is an advocacy tool of engagement with different stakeholders in the reported countries, serves as a yardstick for measuring their annual performance and provides critical recommendations to improve the digital space.

According to the report, Mauritania and Ethiopia had blatant internet shutdowns, while Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Senegal had varied degrees of internet throttling and partial shutdowns on mobile internet networks.

While in Sudan internet access disruption was caused by power outages, Tunisia had notable progress in expanding internet access and connectivity through initiatives such as ‘the national education network, satellite internet trials, and efforts to bridge connectivity gaps’ in marginalised communities.

The report indicates that information disorders were experienced in 2023, with election periods breeding disinformation in countries like Nigeria during their March 2023 elections.

Zimbabwe government orders another Internet services shutdown

Online gender-based violence was also a cause for concern and was highlighted as a barrier to women’s inclusion on online platforms.

Among others, vague laws are cited as barriers to freedom of expression and access to information.

Countries like Namibia still don’t have a cybercrime law, while those with such laws have suffered a backlash from civil society organisations given human rights violating provisions.

Article 21 of law No. 007-2016 on Cybercrimes, for instance, criminalises the ‘posting of photos, phrases or voice or text messages containing prejudice to Islamic values without definition of what the full breadth of conduct deemed criminal.

In Rwanda, concerns were raised about the abuse of legislation by state security to unleash indiscriminate mass digital surveillance.

In a positive stride towards eliminating vague laws in Africa, Uganda’s Constitutional Court decided on the vagueness of section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act 2 of 2011, declaring it void.

The provision prohibited any person from “wilfully and repeatedly [using] electronic communication to disturb or attempt to disturb the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person with no purpose of legitimate communication.”

“We urge African governments to raise awareness against information disorders, ensuring that women are protected from online gender-based violence while repealing laws that violate freedom of expression, access to information and privacy, such as repressive cybercrime laws and vague data protection provisions,” read part of the report’s recommendations.

While appealing to governments to proactively disclose the utilisation of the Universal Service Fund and the amount to track progress easily, the report further recommends bridging the digital divide by ensuring that underserved communities and persons with disabilities have meaningful access to digital technologies.

The LONDA 2023 Digital Rights and Inclusion in Africa report was launched on Friday.

The report also features an assessment of the implementation of the Universal Service Fund cited differently across the African countries covered in this report but addressing national access to universal services to bridge the unresolved digital divide with at least notable improvements in Uganda on the implementation of the Universal Service Fund in 2023 compared with performance in 2022.

The digital divide still echoes across the reported African countries, yet some countries have faced challenges implementing the USF.

Namibia, for instance, has had a setback with the fund remaining dormant as telecommunications operators resist compliance through legal action.

Lesotho reports on the USF expenditure are not readily available for public access, with countries like Zimbabwe and Benin failing to disclose the actual amount publicly and regularly since the fund’s inception.

The failure of governments to disclose the amounts available under USF is a masking veil on transparency, showing gaps in good governance practices.

“Governments must ensure the necessary safeguards in the rolling out of digital ID policies and practices and enact national Artificial Intelligence (AI) strategies to address AI and emerging technologies,” said the report.

While contributing towards broadband access through financial resources, and collaborating with governments, the private sector was asked to ensure that community standards protect vulnerable groups from the lived realities of information disorders through rights-respecting content moderation practices.

The sector must also disclose transparency reports concerning the process of responding to government requests for internet shutdowns and unauthorised data access.

The report said civil society organisations must continue to push to advocate for digital rights and digital inclusion, raise awareness of information disorders capacitate communities to fact-check.

“CSOs should monitor, document and report on digital rights, the USF and internet disruptions to hold duty bearers accountable,” the report recommended.