There have been a lot of internet shutdowns of late in many countries in Africa. These range from as little as simply blocking access to popular social media apps like WhatsApp and Facebook, all the way to shutting down the entire internet.
What concerns me is the conflation of access to the internet with access to private companies such as the Facebook group or Twitter when voices are raised in support of people’s rights to connect, communicate, and in the majority of the cases, to conduct commerce (be it formal or informal).
There’s an economic cost to these shutdowns, with the greatest impact being felt by the most economically vulnerable. In today’s digital world, connectivity is critical for commerce and communication.
But, is it access to Facebook that is critical or WhatsApp rather than access to the internet and the world wide web?
Facebook’s recent past demonstrates vividly, in places such as Myanmar, what the real cost of unchecked access to a means to rouse violence and subsequent genocide has turned out to be. In India, WhatsApp has been directly blamed for riots and lynch mobs. Owned by the same company, their track record in managing hate speech and its inevitable consequences is shameful at best, and deeply dangerous and disturbing at worst.
As civil society groups and others raise their voices in support for peoples disconnected the global digital economy and society today, I believe we need to be cautious about what we’re speaking up for. I would not speak up for Facebook’s rights – there’s ample evidence they’ve trampled on mine even though I’m not a registered user of their platform – nor would I support other private sector tech giants headquartered far away.
The perception that people cannot communicate with each other, nor organize rightful protests, without the use of this one company or that one is a dangerous one in a world where these companies neither care for our rights nor our privacy.
Instead, there’s an opportunity for the emergence of a plethora of independent African “anti-block” social and commercial solutions -whether SMS based or USSD based or whatever the technology specialists deem fit – that can then be supported if shut down, instead of us raising our voices in support of the Facebook Group of Companies.
I share your ambivalence. I do wonder whether a successful local messaging app is going to be any more successful at mitigating misuse than WTF. At least they will be locally accountable, which is a start.
Locally accountable, indeed. And also perhaps able to better spot and control misuse especially if they are locally accountable to the authorities. More than misuse, I worry that the activism against internet shutdowns may have been hijacked by the tech giants positioning themselves as indispensable in a world that is increasingly circling the wagons around them.