Access denied: How limited Internet connectivity erodes democracy

Demonstrations and burning cars in Alexandria Egypt: CREDIT: heckepics

The advent of the Internet came with so much promise: it would be an empowering tool in areas of socio-economic and political growth. Much of this optimism was based on the Internet being a decentralised form of communication – unlike traditional means of communication – allowing users to create their content and share it within various networks. These aspects make the Internet a democratising agent, providing citizens with a space for free expression, access to information, and participation in the democratic process. Indeed, for civic participation to be meaningful, it must allow people access to information that will enable them to make informed decisions.

Within this context, the Internet in Africa came of age during the Arab Spring, which began in December 2010 (and would last for two years), when citizens across North Africa leveraged the power of such a decentralised network to organise political protests. These actions ultimately forced out autocratic presidents in Tunisia and Egypt. Until this event, the Internet had been an open space where citizens met and deliberated freely. After the Arab Spring, governments across the continent were uncomfortable with the power of open and accessible Internet spaces, especially social media platforms, having witnessed their power and how it could affect their rule. Today the internet in Africa is subject to government interference through the weaponisation of laws, online taxes and Internet shutdowns.

Another type of shutdown?

AccessNow defines an Internet shutdown as “an intentional disruption or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information”. Shutdowns take many forms, and there are different types. AccessNow identifies three: blanket (total) shutdowns, partial shutdowns, and throttling. The first two types are easy to spot when implement, as the users notice when services are either wholly cut or specific services suddenly available, such as when access to social media messaging applications is limited. Throttling is less easy to spot. It entails” Internet speeds [being] intentionally slowed down for the purpose of making it harder – or even impossible – for people to upload, download, or access information”.

There is another form of shutdown that should be considered, and that is the reluctance of governments across the African continent to improve connectivity, or in some cases, create meaningful connectivity. That is because limited telecommunications networks and power infrastructure to enable the use of electronic devices to access the Internet achieve the same outcome as the three types of shutdowns identified above. They prevent certain sections of society from accessing the Internet owing to poor Internet speeds and unreliable connectivity, making it difficult – and sometimes impossible – for people to upload, download, or watch streaming services, and to access information.  Governments that fail to fulfil the obligation that their citizens have access to the internet should therefore be seen as intentionally keeping out specific segments of society from the internet and information.

Recognising the lack of connectivity as a form of a shutdown would force governments to be accountable the way they do when there is a clear intention of an Internet shutdown. While the global Internet has expanded exponentially, 44% of the world’s unconnected people living in sub-Saharan Africa, and less than one in four people in Africa have access to the Internet.

Internet access is a human right

Governments today can no longer feign ignorance of the benefits of the Internet to society. The Internet is a necessary means to end the fulfilment of people’s human rights. United Nations Human Rights Council recognises that people’s offline rights must also be protected online. Aside from the rights-based understanding, it is also well documented that the Internet plays a vital role in the full realisation of human development, including economic, social and cultural development – it facilitates the exercise and enjoyment of several socio-economic benefits of the Internet brings.

These aspects became even more apparent during the COVID-19 period, requiring meetings, education, businesses and other social gatherings to move online due to mitigating measures that restricted physical contact and promoted social distancing. Henceforth, it will be increasingly important that Internet access is considered a basic human right and protected in the same way as other liberties. Only when this is done will the great promise of the world wide web start to be realised.

Jimmy Kainja (@JKainja) is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Malawi, where he teaches Media, Communication and Cultural Studies. His areas of academic and research interest are media and communications policy, journalism, new media, digital rights, freedom of expression, access to information and the intersection between media, democracy, and development.

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