Thousands of experts from all over the world came together at the Internet Governance Forum in Brazil. DW Akademie and iRights.Lab invited nine African Internet experts to join the conversation.
"All over the world, people are arrested every single day for what they post on Facebook," renowned Internet expert Rebecca MacKinnon says. Research for her Ranking Digital Rights project highlighted the failure of major Internet and telecommunications companies to safeguard users' rights to privacy and freedom of expression.
MacKinnon was a prominent guest and participant at a workshop organized by DW Akademie and the Berlin think tank iRights.Lab as part of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in João Pessoa in Brazil. The workshop was attended by Internet experts from eight African countries. Matthias Spielkamp, a member of the Reporters Without Borders board and a managing partner at iRights.Lab, helped design the workshop funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). "DW Akademie and iRights took a unique approach: We set up an intensive two-day workshop during the run up to the IGF. This gave participants a chance to work with experts to systematically prepare for the complex conference."
The participants from Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda, Ethiopia, Ghana and South Africa met face to face with leading experts like MacKinnon and UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy, Joe Cannataci.
The challenges of going digital
The Internet Governance Forum is widely recognized as one of the most important conferences on the future of the Internet. This was the tenth time the United Nations brought leading stakeholders from government, civil society and the global Internet community together. Dialogue - both off and online - centered on the many challenges facing Internet users as the world goes digital, such as freedom of expression and access to information, and new forms of discrimination and surveillance. Net neutrality, critical Internet resources, and strengthening cooperation among the various stakeholders in the digital world also topped the agenda.
The IGF is a multi-stakeholder platform and the world's first open and transnational forum in this area. Though it has no decision-making power, it facillitates dialogue that shapes national and regional Internet governance. Steffen Leidel with the Division Knowledge Management and Digital Innovation at DW Akademie pointed to one problem with the IGF: "Stakeholders from developing countries are still under-represented at this important forum. We want to empower our partners to participate in the national and global debate on the vital issue of freedom of expression on the Internet."
A central and recurring topic was the interplay of human rights and digital rights: Access to information, freedom of expression and privacy are all fundamental rights that must be upheld in both the real and the virtual world. In many African countries though the trend is headed in the opposite direction. As Aubrey Chikungwa, Director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa in Malawi, noted: "More and more governments are trying to control the Internet and limit freedom of expression online. So strong civil society organizations are vital to hold governments to account and ensure that people know and demand their rights."
Human rights and the Internet
Matthias Spielkamp, partner at iRightsLab and board member of Reporters Without Borders, and Lorena Jaume-Palasi, coordinator with the Global Internet Governance Working Group, help out at the DW Akademie workshop
New cyber security and data protection bills are under discussion in many African countries. Existing media and telecommunications legislation has to be adapted to the demands of the Internet age, a process that involves opportunities and risks alike. In southern Africa, DW Akademie supports the regional Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) in its efforts to improve Internet governance know-how, strategy development and networking among political, economic, scientific, civil society and media stakeholders.
In its new Agenda for Sustainable Development, the United Nations set an ambitious goal to "significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020." Lorena Jaume-Palasí, associate researcher with iRights.Lab and one of the workshop organizers, says this can only work if the countries in question are invited to the table: "To achieve this goal in just five years, African voices from civil society, the economy and politics need to be better represented in the debate on Internet governance. Their concerns must be heard."