Internet freedom in Africa: Taxes, Shutdowns And a need for change

Guest Blog: Rosemary Siyachitema

Access to the internet is a powerful tool that should not be taken for granted. More than 4.4 billion users worldwide are now connected, spending a daily average of 6.5 hours online. But whilst reliable internet access is a reality for many consumers across the globe, for billions it is still a distant dream

In Africa, 38% of the population is now connected but many still face access barriers such as unaffordable and unreliable connections, internet taxation that deters usage and even internet shutdowns that revoke access for undefined periods without any warning.

I want to highlight why internet access and freedom is so important – painting the picture of the benefits that can be gained from internet freedom, and the negative implications when internet access is taken away.

Rosemary Siyachitema is a Consumers International Board member and Executive Director at the Consumer Council Zimbabwe.

The internet in Africa: why freedom is essential

Over the last two decades, Africa has seen mixed progress when it comes to widely available and affordable internet connection. In 2000, most countries across the continent had an internet penetration of around 1% or less, reaching an average of 2% in 2005.

Boosting growth required considerable reform to breathe fresh air into a stagnant telecommunications sector that was monopolised by state entities, and to a lesser extent, private companies. However, the liberalisation of the Africa telecommunications sector in the late 2000s, an influx of considerable investment and infrastructure development and the increased availability of cheap smartphones changed the landscape – with growth in internet penetration from 2% in 2005 to 28% in 2017, the fastest growth of any continent.

In 2019, the internet is continuing to reshape many aspects of life in Africa. Mobile money services are booming and empowering millions of users across Africa to make payments and access microfinancing services. In my country, Zimbabwe, the internet has contributed immensely to financial literacy, largely due to readily available consumer education and information.  

The internet can be harnessed for inclusive and sustainable growth, making life easier for consumers, raising the productivity of workers, firms and helping to extend key services to those who need them most.

Across the globe, and especially in Africa, technology is giving consumers increased access to an array of life-enhancing services, from education to healthcare, that contribute to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Many Africans are also hailing the benefits of increased connectivity on social communication and even politics. The internet serves as a public forum allowing citizens to lend their voices to social issues by commenting or taking action, voting, marching and using other tools they have access to. It is empowering historically marginalised people, including those in regional environments and in conflict zones.

The internet can be such a powerful force for good, but only focussing on the positives would be a disservice to the millions of Africans still without access, and those who are being silenced by actions that are eroding internet freedom.

Controlling governments, limited privacy and shutdowns

In recent times, some governments across Africa have taken steps to increase surveillance and limit freedom online.

Over time, governments in Africa have introduced e-government portals and digital identity programmes that require citizens to provide detailed personal information, including biometrics for voters’ cards, identity cards, and driving licences. There are also many examples of mandatory registration for SIM cards – which require personal information, including valid ID or even biometrics.

This increased surveillance capacity of some governments is a big concern, with some governments working with technology companies to build mass facial recognition programmes that are likely to undermine consumer privacy. This capacity has been accompanied by tighter regulatory control of the internet, including the now widespread and restrictive measures such as censorship, filtering, blocking, throttling and internet shutdowns evident in several countries.

Internet shutdowns are on the rise globally, with 106 documented shutdowns in 2017 rising to 196 shutdowns in 2018 – Africa and Asia being the most affected regions. Colleagues from member organisations in Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan, amongst others, have been outspoken about how deteriorating internet freedom in Africa is having a negative impact on consumers. Sudanese Consumers Protection Society (SCPS) reported in June 2019 that an internet shutdown left many consumers without access to communication tools, information and essential services such as mobile banking. 

Taxing our online services

Perhaps one of the notable and concerning phenomena in recent years is the use of taxation to undermine citizens’ use of the internet. Such measures are limiting how many citizens can access digital technologies and use them to hold governments to account. In other instances, governments have been eager to increase revenues from the telecom sector, and particularly, from streaming services, which they claim are eating into the revenues of licensed telecom operators. In the last two years, enhancing taxes on airtime, data bundles and social media access appears to be evolving as a pattern with most African countries. These costs are usually passed on to consumers, raising the cost of internet access which is already out of reach for many.

Towards a brighter future

How can we move towards a brighter future for internet freedom in Africa? There is no easy answer, but progress will rely on governments and regulators making a concerted effort to strengthen national legislation and regional guidelines.

Consumer advocacy groups can play an important role in advocating for internet freedom. We must remind governments of the enormous benefits that affordable, reliable and safe access to the internet can bring for consumers, and the consequences that can arise when our internet freedom is denied, or needless barriers to access are enforced.

There is also much work to be done in terms of protecting data protection and privacy, with only 43% of African countries legislation in place. By prioritising regulation that protects consumer data and privacy when they connect – we can build their trust rather than eroding their rights.

With around 40% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa under the age of 16, we must give them a platform to thrive, flourish and build a better future for Africa. Ensuring that everyone can access the internet, regardless of their income, gender or where they live would be a huge stride towards a fairer, brighter and more sustainable world.