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Stand up for a free internet, whether or not you work online

Saturday May 28 2016

 

NANJIRA SAMBULI
By NANJIRA SAMBULI
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The internet is no longer a luxury, nice-to-have utility. It’s a crucial enabler of economic development.

That is why we should all be internet advocates, of advancing internet access across the country, making it affordable and keeping it open, fast and secure.

In the recently-adopted Sustainable Development Goals, the three pillars of sustainable development will leverage information and communications technologies as a catalyst.

For instance, Goal 8, Decent Work and Economic Growth, acknowledges that ICT skills have already become a prerequisite for all forms of employment, and that ICTs are transforming traditional employment sectors such as farming, manufacturing and health.

Kenya, through the National ICT Masterplan, has identified the lofty goal of the ICT sector contributing up to eight per cent of our GDP, creating 180,000 direct jobs and up to 55 Kenya-based global companies by 2017.

Whether we are passive consumers or “internet workers”, we have to be attuned to the technical developments and human rights implications of the strategies being implemented to plug us all into this global resource.

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The “FAST principles”, devised by the Web Foundation, provide a solid framework for assessing the advancement of internet access in Africa. The acronym stands for Fast, Affordable, Safe and Transparent Internet.

Kenyans recently joined their peers in 20 African countries, participating in a week of action, campaigning for increased internet awareness among citizens and mobilising to lobby governments to adhere to these key tenets.

BROADBAND SPEED

For Fast internet, the task is to achieve average download and upload speeds of at least 4MB (32Mbps) per second, for efficient web browsing and online communication.

In the Kenya National Broadband Strategy for 2013-2017, the broadband definition and goal adopted is “connectivity that is always-on and that delivers at a minimum 5Mbps to individuals, homes and businesses for high speed access to voice, data, video and applications for development.”

This refers to the allocated bandwidth, or the amount of data that can be sent to your connected device per second. The 5Mbps (5 megabits of data per second) speed is set as a minimum for rural areas by 2017, with a minimum of 40Mbps (or 5MB) set for urban areas.

The set minimum for urban areas is well above the identified average in the FAST principles. Between 2018 and 2022, the targeted minimum broadband speeds for rural and urban areas in Kenya are 50Mbps and 300Mbps for rural areas and urban areas respectively.

Are we currently enjoying the speeds set within the 2013-2017 target period in Kenya?

As the 2017 target for the broadband strategy approaches, it is imperative on us all to hold the government to account for their achievements against these goals, which were to be revised to double broadband footprint by next year!

TO CONNECT OR TO EAT

For an Affordable Internet, the Web Foundation offers that a basic prepaid data plan of at least 1GB should cost less than 2 per cent of average national monthly income, and plenty of free public access points should be provided.

In Kenya, the Alliance for Affordable Internet has found that the price of a 500MB plan as a percentage of average income for those living on less than $3.10 per day or US$94 per month is currently at 13.4 per cent, with the same plan at 21.8 per cent of income for those living on less than $1.90 per day or US $58 per month.

That means that access to the internet is disproportionately expensive for those in low-income households, and therefore unlikely to be a priority when budgeting for household expenditure. We still have a long way to go with free public access points.

So there are many Kenyans who simply cannot afford to tap into the benefits of the Internet, risking a widening digital divide between them and those who can afford access.

ONLINE RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS

A safe internet is one in which our privacy, security and rights online are respected and protected. This is a thorny issue, whose development we all must pay attention to. A good benchmark for a safe internet in Africa is the African Declaration of Internet Rights and Freedoms, which identifies thirteen key principles that should be upheld.

For a transparent internet, it is imperative that policies related to information and communication technology (ICT) laws, taxation and pricing be openly available and easy to understand.

I would also add that monitoring and surveillance efforts must be cast under the same net of transparency. The need for Data Protection laws, for instance, cannot be emphasised enough, as these will shed light on how citizens can hold internet service providers (ISPs), telecommunications companies and organisations with access to our internet-generated data to account.

The Government of Kenya can, and should, lead its African peers to adopting the Fast Principles. While the Fast and Affordable components speak to the more technical aspects of the internet, the Safe and Transparent ones speak to rights and freedoms, often considered secondary to the first two.

Here, we are advocating for the technical to go hand in hand with rights considerations, and for the advancement of the internet on the continent to adopt a rights-based approach. As Paul Kagame recently put it:

But technology is first and foremost, about people...Technology is not just about gadgets, but results on the ground that benefit citizens.

NEW BATTLEFRONT

People have rights, and these should not be sidelined in any development agenda. For as much as we want the Internet to create avenues of economic growth and employment, we must realise that this will not happen unless we secure its openness, safety and transparency.

Kenya is one of only two countries in Africa ranked as having a free Internet. We absolutely have to protect this freedom, and to push for the requisite commitments to keep it so.

Creativity, for instance, is a key element through which jobs and a digital economy can be unlocked in Kenya. Creativity thrives in environments with freedom of expression, association, cultural and linguistic diversity as enshrined principles.

We are fighting to entrench many of these freedoms offline, and we must also factor in the online space as we forge on. This makes us all internet advocates, for we are all beneficiaries of the online and offline freedoms we enjoy that have been hard-won.

Every tweep, writer, thinker, artist, coder, systems administrator, videographer, or passive consumer of online continent, therefore, is and can be an internet advocate. The internet is merely the new battlefront for our rights against a backdrop of economic development being pursued.

UGANDA SHUTDOWNS

As we approach an election year, internet safety and transparency must concern us all, for a number of reasons. It is clear that the internet already is and will be an information battlefront during this period.

There is genuine concern about hateful rhetoric being spewed on many internet platforms, and it is being considered as one reason for regulation (a very thin line from policing) of speech online.

Hate speech may abound, but it is not the only kind of content to be found on the platforms where we congregate online.  We all have to push back against any compromise to the security we are entitled to on the internet.

Internet shutdowns are becoming increasingly popular in African countries. In neighbouring Uganda, there have been two shutdowns in the past couple of months: on election day and during the swearing-in of the President. Unsatisfactory justifications for these interventions include “maintaining peace and security”.

Having a so-called “kill switch” is an even bigger risk, as it undermines business as well as information flow, a critical necessity during such periods of heightened political tension. In Kenya, during the post election violence, the curb in information flow provided breeding grounds for rumours and misinformation.

We all must demand that the Government of Kenya commit to not shutting down or blocking online sites before, during and after the elections. In the meantime, arm yourselves with knowledge on alternatives for connecting to the Internet securely, in the event of any blockades.

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