As the internet has become a driving force in the global economy, governments have somehow come to a harsh reality:
the world’s web policies and regulations are inconsistent and flux.
For emerging markets like Africa, internet policy and regulations are being cobbled up one inconsistent law after another, better yet, left to the whirlwinds blowing from mega-rich corporations from the West.
These corporations, of which come up with all sorts of moon-shot projects to connect Africa to the internet grid at no extra cost.
A nuanced example for this is the almost digital apocalypse perpetrated by western technology giants in a bid to make inroads to the last mile in Africa. Facebook through Free Basics (formerly Internet.org), Google’s Project Loon, Microsoft’s Project Whitespaces are all certainly almost philanthropic works that are bringing first time users to the internet.
It’s a feat worth a toast. It’s never easy.
The first smartphone revolution dawned in Africa with the introduction of the $100 Huawei IDEOS phone by Safaricom (Kenya) in 2010. These little Google-y phones sold as fast as hot cake in Kenya. If anything, the crazy sales were a revelation that the market was ready for disruption. With M-PESA on the chagrin after its acclaimed debut in 2007 that catered for all phones whether basic or not. The missing part of the jigsaw— smartphones — had just been found with Huawei's IDEOS.
What followed is a bunch of M-stuff.
...and startup competitions of all sorts sponsored by uber-rich foreign corporations leering lecherously at the virgin market Kenya and Africa at large presented.
But there was another page to the smartphone revolution. The petulant and unenviable side. A revolution swept through North Africa in 2011.
From the Latin word "revolutio", a revolution is “a turn around” in political power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time when the population rises up in revolt against authorities.
Infamously known as the Arab spring, it saw three autocratic presidents relish power in the most unforeseen of styles. It was unbelievable. The political revolution that swept through was not televised but tweeted. And social media solely fueled this epic moment of history.
In his book, Hatching Twitter, Nick Bilton wrote of how U.S president Obama personally called Jack Dorsey seeking the then Twitter C.E.O’s commitment and dedication in making sure the social networking giant’s servers were humming through and through. And capturing the revolution frame by frame. On top of that he also asked that alternative access routes be developed so as sidestep any state sponsored internet blockade. Tools like speak-to-tweet and SMS-to-tweet were borne thereof. It was combat in the cyberspace.
I am afraid if I had to redact from here. I’d argue that there was no smartphone revolution in the first place. It’d just been a couple of faceless corporations pushing technology products to upend oppressive regimes and on the other hand, for entirely profit-motivated reasons. Well, that’s capitalism and geopolitics. I would conclude and walk away. But that is not the case, so I will jump straight into the expected second smartphone revolution.
At first, the internet for many of us was summarily social media. It was Facebook. Zero-rated Facebook apps reigned dominant on many telcom carriers and for that, up to date, Facebook commands a large African user base. On a daily, over 100 million African users entirely rely on it for information in lieu of standard-rated and more expensive options.
Circa 2010, which I believe was the tipping year for mobile in Africa, we saw unprecedented growth in mobile subscriptions, accelerated advancements in internet infrastructure and significant drop in price of devices and data.
These salient characteristics of accelerated growth do not look like they are about to falter anytime soon.
But it’s such a troubling time for those who are genuinely interested in innovation, access to the internet, and the open web.
Internet Of African Things
Uganda blocked social media and mobile money access for a whooping 4 days during the presidential polls last month. In what seemed like picking a leaf, Congo ordered for a complete shutdown of telephony and internet services just a few days ago in their presidential polls. It’s feared that Kenya will certainly pull a similar stance in the forthcoming 2017 elections and yet, nobody will be held accountable.
Issues of precedence are like issues of the generals, they are better left to the bigwigs themselves. But for how long will the masses always be on the receiving end? I was pissed off at MTN Uganda, and not any of the other 5 culprit telcos, for the social media and mobile money blockade during the presidential elections in Uganda. The rationale for channeling the anger at MTN was simple: precedence.
Precedence is that huge bully who decides if you’ll share your lunch with him or else, he will as well have you for lunch. You get. If MTN had the audacity to say no to orders from above. Then no other telco would have dared to pull the cord. MTN is the big boy here. The bully (in the telecommunications market). But one with no balls to stand for its customers.
There is an interesting and somewhat related case in the U.S. FBI badly wants Apple to write decryption software for an iphone allegedly used by the San Bernardino terrorist. Of course Apple hates terrorism and would never support it. But they argue that decrypting that iphone would open up a can of worms for not only their customers’ privacy and security but also would set precedent for other tech companies to give in to such demands.
Like several Tech companies or organizations, Tor is standing with Apple on strong encryption. Several developers including those at Apple have even motioned that they rather resign than introduce a backdoor into a software for government or security operatives to access.
Not for MTN.
Not for any leading telecom giant on the continent.
They bend to the slightest of the government’s whims and would never stand tall just like Apple did. Even if their reputation before the customers was at stake.
In light of the recent blockades, there was this false perception that the internet is some kill proof and self healing platform. Especially tested by the use of VPNs and other little hacks to sidestep interference. But what was promised is that more damage can be meted on the internet. Perhaps the governments can pull the kill-switch in case of a threat to their absolute authority. Even if the total black-out lasted for a whole week, they would be ready to count the costs in millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money and move on. Even though the United Nations declared access to the internet as a universal human right.
It doesn’t really matter. The key here is keeping power, and not democracy.
As the most part of our civilization gets digitized, power is either shifting to the top or to the bottom depending on which part of the world you live.
Telcos Are The "New" startups
The internet of African things follows through here.
It’s clear. This is not the buzzword cluttered IoT (Internet of Things); where smartphones are connected to smart bulbs and smart refrigerators. Far from it. It’s an eco-system of the traitorous trinity. The government, the foreign tech corp, and the telco. Telcos are like the messiah. Thy glorydom is through them as they interact directly with the masses and relay their findings straight back to the father and the spirit. They have comprehensive data about millions of their customers and their pockets seem to be deep enough.
Business is good.
Where the laws are predominantly inconsistent or non-existent, foreign tech corps come dressed in savior robes. They come ready to experiment with all sorts of ideas in pursuit of connecting the next and unprivileged 2/3 of the people to the internet. However bizarre and biased they could be. Our governments are always wearing a smile and ready to embrace them in brilliantly written communiques. Chanting and proclaiming some national vision 2020 or 2040!
There are inconsistent laws, then there are outright draconian laws and regulations. Like the proposed social media bill in Nigeria which falls short of grace from the word go. The cybercrimes Act which was silently passed last year in Tanzania could potentially be the mother of all repression for online freedoms.
It doesn’t stop there.
Somehow, several countries pick leaves from each other. What we’ll have are repressive laws that are photocopies of each other. The amendments to Information and Communication Acts in both Kenya and Uganda were proposed and put forth just a few weeks ago. The silver lining is to gag free speech on the internet where juridical control has been limited in the recent past.
Whatever way you look at it, it’s not an open web but rather one that is entangled to a higher order of magnitude. If we’re the save the web in Africa.
Then we’d have to dismantle the corpus of the trinity one vital at a time. The same way dictatorships are dismantled.