Data profiling and restrictive laws threaten the Kenyan Internet community. Digital rights activist Grace Mutung’u spoke to us about attempts to rig an election and the next steps in protecting existing freedoms.
Grace Mutung’u is an associate at KICTANET, a multi-stakeholder platform for people and institutions in ICT and civic reform in Kenya. For the last 10 years, KICTANET has been involved in shaping the laws and policies in the ICT sector. We spoke to Grace about digital rights, data mining during the elections, and efforts to protect digital rights.
In terms of digital rights in Kenya, what issue is being most hotly discussed today?
The issue of data protection is very relevant in Kenya. During the 2017 general elections, we noticed a really big gap in protecting people‘s data. There was a lot of use of personal data during the election, a lot of profiling for political purposes. That’s why we thought a policy intervention is needed in order to create more respect for people’s data in Kenya. Right now, and for the greater part of a year, we have been advocating for a data protection law. We wrote a paper on data protection and then the ministry came up with a taskforce that is drafting a bill and we were offering our input. The senate also has a bill that we are contributing to. Even as we digitalize, we should remember it is about humans and that we want a people-centered digitalization.
What happened during the elections?
Both opponents and political parties for the race to the presidency hired data mining companies that were working secretly. One of the companies involved was Cambridge Analytica. They used existing structures in society: they infiltrated media houses, bloggers, influencers, all sorts of places where public opinion is shaped. They even infiltrated universities. And then this content that was created would go viral, mainly through WhatsApp groups, which are very popular here. For example, they had a meme factory; they made all these memes and spread them on social media via WhatsApp groups. Both political parties did it. There was a whole ecosystem of people making the memes, spreading the memes, and then commenting on them.
The 2017 general elections were heavily manipulated by manipulation and propaganda being spread through digital media
And in the end, there was a deliberate effort to inculcate tribalism – negative attitudes towards people of ethnicity – in people who had never really engaged with tribal divisions before, like the critical cosmopolitans of my generation. A lot of the time they were fed these messages on WhatsApp. So we got to a place where people are doing things that are completely unreasonable, because there was this whole machinery that was going on, planting different thoughts in people’s minds. However, because it had been both sides sending all these messages, I think there is still a silver lining from this whole experience. Now we are having many more discussions on other things that influence our society. For example, now, you’ll see a lot of people discussing the debt crisis we are in.
What are other digital rights issues that are important in the Kenyan context?
Kenyans have to be wary of surveillance technologies. The state is getting more and more power to surveil. And these surveillance technologies obviously have an effect on freedom of expression. If you know that every move is being followed, it has a chilling effect on what you can say online. How much can you question the government? How much can you question leadership in general? How much can you participate in political discourse? We are getting to a point where it is very hard to stay anonymous in Kenya, because most Internet use is through mobile phones and these are connected to a number that is registered. And then transactions are done online via phones, including government transactions and they are all tied to the same number. That is having a very indirect but huge effect on freedom of expression.
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In general, do you think that freedom of expression is applied in practice?
It depends. If you are looking at it from a regional perspective, Kenya is ahead of the rest. Kenyans really love to discuss politics and the space is quite open compared to our neighbors, because a lot of work has been done in reforming the constitution. The new constitution has very progressive rights for the media. Kenyans need to be very vigilant about these rights. In 2017, after the repeat election, there was this whole debacle about opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga wanting to be sworn in as president. Of course it was a contentious issue. But the government actually had the power and, indeed, did shut down some TV stations to try to interfere. I understand that there was a struggle, but I think it could have been resolved in another way, like going to court and getting a court order against the swearing in.
What is being done to protect freedom of expression and digital rights in Kenya?
There are quite a few organizations working in the area of freedom of expression and digital rights. And we have been successful in a sense. For example, before the elections there was a lot of advocacy about trying to make the greater society understand about the Internet and the elections and how the two interact. When election-related cases were going to court, you could see that there was a really good understanding in the judiciary about the Internet and digital rights. However, it is still an uphill task. In terms of reacting, we are really good. For example, we have been successful in challenging the arrests of bloggers. But it was in reaction to one such arrest that we applied a legal strategy of questioning the constitutionality of the arrest. So civil society needs to be more proactive, for example by studying all the laws that hinder freedom of expression and either presenting them to parliament for repeal or taking them to court for interpretation.
What are the main challenges facing Kenya in the next years?
We need to reflect on the changes that society is going through with digitalization and how it shifts power. The state, which already had power over citizens, is gaining more control and people don’t seem to realize this. There is no pushback to ensure that, as the state gathers more data on people and more power over people, there are safeguards to protect us from misuse of that power. The methods for information and data control – they will grow more sophisticated and may get to a point when it is too late to return to a time where human rights are upheld. It’s definitely urgent for the human rights community to learn about the digital world, and to understand how it can be used for control and pushback.
There is also need for civil society to create more awareness for citizens, and especially young people, about digital rights. There has also been a tendency to adopt things that were developed in other countries. But there is also a need to have some homegrown solutions where we also think about the issues. Here, mobile technology matters most. So, for example, if you talk about digital safety, for us it has a lot to do with mobile phones.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer