Internet Rights in Africa: A Comment

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The Internet is an enabling space. It provides us with the realization of our basic human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, opinion, thought and belief. In this blog post, I have tried to give an overview of the recent developments with regard to the Internet rights in Africa.

The ‘African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms’ is a Pan-African initiative intending to basically uphold human rights on the Internet and cultivate openness throughout the web. Though it is not binding it would still have a considerable persuasive value in decision-making and policy formulation. It will be presented at the African Union Conference of Ministers in charge of Communication and Information Technologies early next year. It has already begun receiving accolades for its precise guidelines in order to help shape the Internet policy-making and governance in Africa.

The initiative is a “significant milestone in this digital era.” Getachew Engida (Deputy Director General, UNESCO)

  1. Net Neutrality

The declaration endorses openness and repudiates any restriction on exchange of information online or any special privileges to any party throughout the web. One of the basic ingredients of efficient Internet usage is the ability of the user to share or gather information from any website of their choice. Imagine the chaos if our Internet Service Providers were to regulate the Internet and provide ‘faster lanes’ to websites that paid more. This Net Neutrality on the Internet, as the Declaration emphasizes, needs to be protected. Recently, Netflix, along with Reddit and many other websites, protested in order to protect Net Neutrality by slowing down their websites. Data and information obtained by the government should be publically available, preferably free of cost. Aaron Swartz, a popular Internet rights activist, in 2008 downloaded 19,856,160 pages of text from the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) database managed by the United States Courts. He was essentially trying to make something public, which was already ‘public’ though not accessible.

  1. Access and Affordability

The United Nation’s specialized agency for Information and communication technologies, the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) in a report published in 2013, claims that on an average, fixed broadband prices are by the far the least affordable in Africa with an average regional value of 64.3 percent of Gross National Income per capita. What use is a chocolate fudge on a table, if you cannot taste it? The declaration emphasizes on access and affordability policies and regulations to improve Internet access to all sectors of the society.

  1. Privacy and Data Protection

The primary concern for any Internet user is their privacy and data protection. The declaration aptly provides for an appropriate notice to the user and lawful collection, use, retention, disclosure of the user’s data. The principles followed are pretty much along the lines of the nine National Privacy Principles comprehensively dealt with by Justice A.P. Shah in his ‘Report on Privacy’, published by the Planning Commission of India.

  1. Right to Information and Freedom of Expression

Public debate and discussions help the people form an opinion, which enables decision-making and democracy. The declaration directs the government to provide guidelines for the protection of journalists and others who perform public watchdog functions. It provides for freedom of expression on the Internet and prevents Intermediaries from removing or hiding content even if it infringes copyright laws, unless they are required to do so by the court. There are certain aspects of these rights that are worrying, and the author will be commenting on these in further detail in a follow-up post.

  1. National Culture and Tradition

The declaration is also not far behind in protecting the nation’s culture and tradition. It requires States to allocate resources and promote linguistic diversity on the Internet with the help of comprehensive policies. It provides for special attention to be paid to the rights of marginalized groups including minorities, ethnic, sexual, linguistic, persons with disabilities and rural constituencies. Broadening its horizons, it also highlights the need to address the existing gender inequalities by creating online content that promotes women’s needs and voices.

For efficient realization of the rights and principles, the declaration calls upon various stakeholders including Regional, National and International organizations for their support. It also provides guidelines for the civil society, media organizations and companies operating in Africa, academic and training Institutions in order to achieve its objective.

Meanwhile in India and Brazil

TheBrazilian Civil Rights Framework for the Internet’ (Marco Civil da Internet) was recently sanctioned by the Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff in April 2014. Unlike the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms, the Marco Civil is binding. This legislation deals with the law with respect to Internet rights in Brazil by providing sanctions, guidelines, rights and duties. It comprehensively deals with the personal records, data and communication protection through lawful retention, appropriate notice to the user and providing sanctions in case of transgressing the law.

The Marco Civil protects Intermediaries from any liability for civil damages arising from any third party content.[1] However, two exceptions have been provided. First, if they fail to take down third party content after a court order has been passed and secondly, if they fail to make unavailable any material containing nudity or which is of a sexual nature after it has received a notice from the person whose privacy is being breached.[2] A detailed analysis of the Marco Civil can be found here.

And in India, a recent report called ‘India’s Surveillance State’ published by a non-profit organization, ‘Software Freedom Law Center’, shows how the privacy rights of an Internet user in India are being abrogated by the State itself under the garb of ‘public safety[3] and ‘unavoidable circumstances[4]. India has never had a legislation specifically dealing with an individual’s ‘right to privacy’. Especially in today’s world which has engendered a dichotomy of personality (real and the virtual one) in everyone’s life, it is imperative to fill up this lacuna.

The Internet has the potential to change a nation. The developing countries of Africa and Brazil have taken positive steps to protect the Internet rights of their citizens and it is high time India followed in their footsteps.

[1] Article 18, The Brazilian Civil Rights Framework for the Internet.

[2] Article 21, The Brazilian Civil Rights Framework for the Internet.

[3] Section 5(2), Indian Telegraph Act 1885.

[4] Rule 419A, Indian Technology Act 2000.

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