Can technology be a force for good in Africa?

22 Mar 2018 13:15h - 14:00h

Event report

[Read more session reports from the WSIS Forum 2018]

This session built on a number of survey findings about Internet use and access as well as about awareness of digital rights. At the core of participants’ presentations was the concept of the ‘digital rights divide’, which is a divide between those that are aware of their digital rights and those that are not.

Prof. Alison Gillwald, executive director at Research ICT Africa, presented some of the survey findings of her organisation and argued that there are differences between countries in terms of citizens’ understanding of privacy rights vis-à-vis the government. But in general, individuals seem more concerned with getting online and with being able to afford online access than with their digital rights, especially when it comes to privacy. Prof. Gillwald’s research also indicated that there is self-censorship when it comes to the use of the Internet and specific apps, meaning that individuals stay away from using certain apps or use them in highly circumscribed ways.

Mr Alexandre Barbosa, who is in charge of several nationwide information and communication technology (ICT) survey projects in Brazil, described a digital divide in terms of Internet coverage and quality of access in Brazil, which occurs between the north and south of the country. Other dividing lines that he identified are income and level of education.

Similarly, Mr Carlos-Rey Morena, community networks manager for the Association for Progressive Communications, argued that individuals are preoccupied with access and the cost of access and do not tend to be too concerned about other digital rights. Building on his own experience with community networks, he argued that in order to change this situation, community buy-in is crucial.

Dr Rasha A. Abdulla, professor of journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo, suggested that there is generally a low awareness of online tools. In terms of rights online, she pointed out that appropriate survey data is lacking in the case of Egypt and that under current circumstances it would be difficult to carry out such surveys. 

In other areas, a decrease of trust in online services can be observed. Ms Scarlett Fondeur Gill from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) explained that she had seen a decrease in the trust that individuals put in e-commerce platforms. She pointed to a lack of regulation and law-making as one of the chief reasons and argued that legislative frameworks to protect consumers and their data are missing, especially on the African continent. That means that, in addition to a lack of infrastructure, there are policy constraints which impact the ability of small and medium enterprises, and those engaged in micro-work, to benefit from online tools.

Looking at one of the most vulnerable groups, refugees, Mr John Warnes, innovation technology officer with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), argued that the protection of the digital rights of these groups should be a priority. Using the example of the UNHCR’s work in Uganda, he explained that this needs to go hand in hand with supporting the host communities. He reminded everyone that ‘when we support the most vulnerable, we enhance digital rights for all’.


By Katharina E Höne