It was a cold evening in Johannesburg. A few colleagues decided to go for dinner at a restaurant hosting a live band and a short talk. A short talk, before awesome food and amazing music, could hurt no one, we assumed. By the time we got to the restaurant, the short talk was on, so we believed it was only a matter of minutes before we settled down to the evening’s entertainment. We were wrong. The short talk dragged on, and became the night’s big lesson. She talked on and on about diseases and each PowerPoint slide that we assumed was the last disappointed us.
By the time the scientist was done with us, food was no longer interesting and the live band had lost their mojo. As we left the restaurant to book taxis in groups, someone voiced our joint disappointment. “That’s exactly how we sound when we talk about Digital Rights, guys,” another colleague said. He was right. Our passion for a subject we hold so dear keeps us from connecting with the people that need to hear about it the most. So, on behalf of everyone who has added to your lack of interest in the subject of Digital Rights — human rights in this age of phones, computers and other gadgets, — I apologise. As the scientist did to us at that dinner, we have bored you so much that even though we should all be demanding our rights in these complex times, you tune off at Digi…
We live in an age defined by digital. As at the end of 2018, 4.3 billion people were connected to the Internet. During the same period, there were 2.53 billion smartphones and 23.14 billion devices connected to the Internet. Life, work, play and every other interaction we have with the world, is subject to some form of digital tool, platform or solution. Unfortunately, this also means that those who seek to control our lives and participation in public – including political – life can easily focus their attention on keeping us disconnected from these digital opportunities. This is why demanding our rights in the digital age – our digital rights – is important. Beyond protecting our rights for the sake of asserting our humanity, there are also social, economic and other costs to violations. In many cases, money is wasted on equipment and other things by erring governments. As we have seen in many African countries, there are economic losses during clampdowns and lives are lost due to deliberate target of opposition or when citizens get disconnected from emergency services.
A telecommunications company’s SIM registration contractor sold off laptops that still had biometric information belonging to hundreds of Nigerians. A leading public hospital published sensitive information about patients that paid for HIV-related services online. Other data breaches featured airlines, banks, government agencies and more. No one is immune to the violation of rights in an environment that has no protection for citizens and some of these violations cost much more than discomfort. This is why you should care about your rights in the digital environment. From the child whose data is compromised for life to a relative that won’t come home tonight because of something he posted of social media, and the young woman whose innovation may never see the light of day because Internet services were disrupted while trying to submit her entry, the list of possible implications is endless.
A major reason we are seeing more rights violations across Africa is that as more people come online, their opportunity for democratic participation through this new town hall clashes with the ego and self-serving interests of some political leaders who are increasingly learning about the power of the Internet. Fortunately, many of them are beginning to see that the violations they allow today will come back to haunt them when they lose power. Nigerians will forever be reminded of a powerful National Security Adviser who lost his position and suddenly became a human rights activist. Human dignity is very connected to the respect of rights, and in this digital age, it is important to respect these rights. I have good and bad news. Let’s start with the bad: governments who are scared of digital rights will continue to enable violations by either not acting to stop it or perpetrating it themselves. The good: more citizens will get online and become aware of the opportunities for expression. Also, attempts to limit the digital civic space will yield less and less results.
Many years ago, a Nigerian dictator sent an Internet service pioneer to jail to stop the spread of information. Long after his death, he is being discussed online. When Uganda shut down the Internet, the information they tried to keep under wraps exploded because it is impossible to limit free speech in the age of circumvention and resilient networks. Unfortunately, Nigeria just suffered a setback in its digital rights journey because the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill was not signed by the President. If ever there was a time we needed to rise to defend a fundamental right that benefits everyone, it’s now. We should all be advocates of our rights in the digital age. While some may be frontline drafting laws, training, litigating and doing other things, we must all defend in our own little ways. We should all be digital rights advocates.