Are African Internet Users Treated Like Second-Class Citizens?

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Written by Tom Jackson
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African internet users have experienced vast improvements in connectivity. Photo – Quartz

Over the last 10 years, Africa has experienced one of the fastest connectivity growth rates on earth, encouraging new innovations and providing internet users with access to previously unheard-of services.

Countries across the continent are transitioning towards digital economies, while internet companies like Facebook and Twitter, and mobile operators like Orange and Vodafone, are targeting African markets and providing services that meet their needs.

Yet, paradoxically, the digital rights of African internet users “have never been in such jeopardy”, according to recent research by advocacy group Internet Without Borders. The organisation studied the privacy and freedom-of-expression policies of Sonatel – Orange’s subsidiary in Senegal – and Safaricom – Vodafone’s in Kenya – and found they came horribly short.

“Despite clear commitments at the group level… Vodafone and Orange can do better when it comes to protecting freedom of expression and privacy of their users through their subsidiaries in Senegal and Kenya,” the report said.

“The combination of weak legal environments in sub-Saharan Africa, regulators with limited means of action, and uneducated civil society on the issue of digital rights, helps explain why both companies are not stimulated to better perform in the protection of freedom of expression and the right to privacy of their users.”

In particular, the report found the two companies disclose less information about policies affecting their users’ digital rights than their counterparts in Europe, and said they are facing serious challenges in disclosing clear information about how they uphold freedom of expression and privacy.

Orange Senegal did not even publish its terms of service or a privacy policy, while Safaricom’s terms of service were reported to be very vague, using complicated legal language. Sonatel has responded by saying in a statement that the report tends to project European habits onto an African context, but is that good enough?

African internet users ‘treated like second class citizens’

Not according to Peter Micek, who leads the Access Now policy team’s business and human rights work. Micek says the report’s findings show African internet users are “treated like second-class citizens”.

“They do not get the same standard of care and respect that people (get) in the home countries of these telecoms. While the operating environments differ greatly from those in Europe, this should push the companies to raise the bar, rather than dip below it, leaving users without crucial understanding of how their rights are mediated,” he said.

In the defence of these African subsidiaries, they do face massive challenges in ensuring respect for human rights in their operations, receiving orders from government to shut down networks and hand over large amounts of user data.

But Micek said it was well within their legal and operational capacity to offer much more information about how they address challenges to privacy and freedom of expression.

“Unfortunately, to date, most African firms offer much less information than their U.S. or European operators on their human rights policies and practices. For example, we have come to expect regular reports from U.S. and European telcos on how they protect user data, what they hand over to governments, and how they’ll process requests and rules that threaten free expression. African telcos should and could improve their disclosures on their interaction with governments and imposition of their own policies,” he said.

This does not mean they have to emulate other countries, however. African Union member states have developed the Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection, which still needs to be ratified and implemented in every African nation.

“Meanwhile, norms and best practices in respecting human rights online outpace government regulation. That’s not actually a bad thing, because it means that companies can step up and meet the types of benchmarks that Internet Without Borders and Ranking Digital Rights have established, without waiting for governments to require this compliance,” said Micek.

Why is it so important that these two companies, as well as other mobile operators active in Africa, get this right? Micek says everyone is becoming more dependent on technology, and more literate in demanding respect for their digital rights.

“It benefits leading telcos to improve their policies and practices and stay ahead of the curve. Trust and better relations with customers follow from more open and accountable business. We are confident that growth and innovation follow respect for human rights in business,” he said.

Tom Jackson is co-founder of Disrupt Africa, a news and research company focused on the African tech startup ecosystem.