The internet has come a long way since 1994 when its sole purpose was to interconnect laboratories engaged in government research. Since then, it has expanded to serve millions in different capacities and purposes worldwide. In just a few years, the internet established itself as a very powerful platform that has changed the way we engage, do business and communicate. It has also become a source of information for billions, at work, school and home.

Perhaps the turning point in internet use was marked by the advent of social media and mobile technology, which has changed the way people consume the internet. While this is something laudable worldwide, the situation is different closer home.

According to a new report by the Collaboration for International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Internet freedoms in Africa has been on the decline in the past 20 years with several countries continually adopting aggressive and sophisticated measures that curtail this very important freedom. These measures, when looked at from a broader perspective, show how they continue to undermine democracy and cement authoritarians hold on political power, and in so doing undermine human rights.

The report suggests that governments of the affected countries have turned internet shutdowns into a tool of political hegemony and control for political stability. The report also reiterates that governments are more than ever before, using digital technologies to surveil, censor and suppress fundamental and basic freedoms of their people through censorship, filtering, blocking, throttling and internet shutdowns.

Over time, governments have embraced the integration of Information Communication Technologies (ICT), including internet-powered applications and services, in government functions and operations. This has partly revolutionised service delivery by partly promoting government efficiency.

Further, several governments are rapidly introducing digitalisation, e-government and digital identity programmes that require citizens to provide detailed personal information, including biometrics for voters’ cards, identity cards, and driver’s licences, SIM card registration, among others.

While sections of society welcome some of these measures as necessary to enhance security and government service delivery, others argue they enhance African states’ surveillance capacity which in turn affects citizens’ digital rights such as privacy, expression and access to information.

Some governments are going as far as coming up with retrogressive policies and laws that criminalise online communication and dissent, such as in Tanzania, Rwanda, and Malawi.

For instance, the Kenyan government has used the need to control “fake news” as an excuse to introduce restrictive laws is in the Computer Misuse and Cyber Crimes Law 2018, while others such as Tanzania and Uganda, are employing Computer Misuse laws to arrest and prosecute government critics, on charges of “offensive communication” and cyber harassment. Likewise, a number of people have been charged in Tanzania for “insulting” President Magufuli on social media under section 16 of the Cybercrime Act, 2015, which essentially prohibits the publication of false information. Several governments have also continued to demand cooperation from actors in the private sector to facilitate the interception of communications and to hand over the call data of subscribers.

Social media has also emerged as a battleground where governments have sought to control conversations through their elaborate propaganda machinery especially during election periods. The use of social media bots and paid influencers to spread fake news has become widespread too, as have concerted efforts to muzzle critics through arrests, threats, intimidation and targeted cyber-attacks.

Internet usage as found in the report differs by country within Africa. Whereas more than half the population uses the internet in South Africa, rates are closer to 30% in West Africa, and only around 10% in Central Africa. Internet usage is particularly low in landlocked countries, where the physical infrastructure necessary to provide infrastructure is costlier, and access is more dependent on neighbouring countries.

The status of internet penetration in the countries under study during the periods 2000-2019 show that in the year 2000, most of the countries in Africa had very limited connectivity to the internet, with most reporting a penetration
rate of less than 1%. Penetration rates have since grown significantly in some countries, with Kenya recording the highest penetration rate of 82.9% in 2019, followed by Senegal at 58.2% and Zimbabwe at 57.9%. In contrast, there was no significant growth in some countries such as Burundi, Malawi and the DRC, where the penetration rates remained low at 7.4%, 13.8% and 19.9% respectively. The slow growth in some countries indicates that there could be several challenges that need to be overcome to ensure access to the internet for more people.

We have also seen the development of the finance sector with the increase in internet use and innovative technologies like mobile money, e-commerce, fin-tech services and mobile loans. But with this has also come with a new wave of restrictions. For example, the Ugandan government introduced have introduced new internet-related taxes on data bundles, internet access and Over-The-Top (OTT) services. Evidence from countries like Uganda has shown that increased taxation undermines the ability of sections of the public to access internet services.

Kenya is also in the process of coming up with a new bill- The Kenya Information and Communication (Amendment) Bill, 2018 which will require bloggers and social media group administrators to seek clearance with the Communications Authority, failure to which could attract fines or jail sentences.  All these are in a bit to control the social media landscape in the country.

As the report suggests, it is, therefore, important to have discussions around internet rights and how to ensure that they are upheld. But, it will take the joint effort of governments, companies, media, academia, technical community and civil society, to make the dream of total internet freedoms a reality.

Read the full report, here.