The theme of the session at which I was speaking at the aforementioned forum was “Human rights in connectivity”. Our perspectives as practitioners were sought, on the status of connectivity in countries like Kenya and South Africa, considered champions in advancing Internet access. (It is interesting to note that Kenya and South Africa voted against the UN resolution protecting rights online. It remains to be established why they voted that way).
As mentioned before, however, how we gauge the success of connectivity in Kenya warrants more scrutiny. Some inequalities of access to other resources are replicating themselves with the Internet: women are being left behind, and in other cases, it has been established that politically marginalised groups are also missing in this “digital revolution”.
I find it most curious that Internet access as a human right is scoffed at. It likely follows the “state of human rights” in many parts of the continent. To appreciate the Internet as a human right, however, is closely linked to appreciating and declaring it a public good.
As the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, put it, “This is for everyone”. The Web, and the Internet, is for everyone! That fundamentally extends to the poorest of the poor in any corner of the world, for whom the Internet may not even be a conceptualisation.
They have many pressing, more urgent needs for sure. That does not mean that we must sacrifice or undermine the Internet’s potential to improve the quality of life that the so-called “average African” is entitled to in their lifetime!
How “practical” this is for the continent is hinged on how we allow Internet policy and governance to formulate in these early days. The policy failures of previous resources can either be replicated in how the Internet is governed and advanced, or serve as a cautionary tale to drive sound policies.
What needs to be realised is that good policy is possible to attain. It’s not all lost for the continent, and to allow the unfortunate realities of today to keep us from pushing for good policies for the Internet will be to fail ourselves and future generations in this interconnected world where economies and lives are increasingly powered by the Internet.
3. Some access is better than none, some aspects are more important than others
When this conversation manages to progress past the two stages above, we then enter the “technical” space, where the Internet is indeed considered an important resource worthy of resources.
The point of departure, however, is still driven by this notion of “what’s practical for Africa”. It might be because we are deeply conditioned to distrust public institutions in fulfilling their mandates, that the plans, efforts and even resources set aside for advancing the Internet are altogether overlooked. The spotlight is shifted to what the private sector and occasionally charitable organisations intend to do in the space.
Take Kenya, for instance. The government, through the Communications Authority of Kenya, manages a Universal Service Fund, tasked with supporting widespread access to ICT services, and promoting capacity building and innovation in ICT services in the country.
To date, the fund has accumulated Sh3.94 billion, of which Sh1.5 billion has been dedicated to expanding ICT services across the country. The sources of the Fund, as the CA states on its website, include levies on licensees, appropriations from the government as well as grants and donations.
There even is an implementation plan for how the funds will be used, informed by an access gap study conducted across the country.
So, why then is the notion that some Internet access — whatever quality, regardless of who dispenses it — is better than none so pervasive? On the surface level, that is true. If we work to connect people on some form of the Internet, everyone will be connected soon enough, and we celebrate having achieved universal access. What could possibly be the problem here?
Well, a deeper assessment unleashes what can only be described as an attempt to balkanise the Internet, the end result being that the quality of the Internet you access is a function of how rich you are. Poor people, in this reasoning, will have a “poor people’s Internet”, which is better than none.
Let’s take a scenario: young geniuses from poor families have an idea to build something on or for the Internet. However, they can only access the Internet via a mobile phone, and in this configuration, they perhaps can only access a suite of applications or sites that are zero-rated. The cost for unfettered Internet access is not affordable. What are the odds that they in those backgrounds can become entrepreneurs and inventors on their own terms?
Indeed, some Internet access is better than none. That is why, investing in free public access — as is currently happening — is a more sound approach than, say, letting private companies dispense their own curated versions of the Internet to different constituencies.
The incentives and benefits in such a setting are skewed heavily to the private companies, much less so the connected. Free public access areas, coupled with making the Internet affordable, as is proposed with the ‘1 for 2’ target, will surely ensure that we see our own innovators and entrepreneurs flourish, regardless of their socio-economic background.
The stakes are high. We need a sound understanding that the Internet is and should be a public good. Else, we risk perpetuating inequalities simply because we didn’t advocate for sound policies to ensure that the Internet is subjected to sound policies on the continent.
Today, the benefits are disproportionately accruing to those already well-off, globally. We cannot afford to fail our people with the Internet if we desire equality in our lifetime.