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Reflections on internet rights and net neutrality in Africa after the IGF

Media Institute of Southern Africa

This statement was originally published on misa.org on 22 November 2015.

MISA's Advocacy Officer in Zambia, Kamufisa Manchishi, recently attended the 10th annual global Internet Governance Forum in João Pessoa, Brazil, from 10 to 13 November, 2015. Below, he shares notes on his experience:

The 10th annual meeting of the global Internet Governance Forum took place from the 10th to the 13th of November, 2015 in the coastal city of João Pessoa, Brazil under the theme "Evolution of Internet Governance: Empowering Sustainable Development".

I was privileged to be one of the three officers representing MISA, with the other two being from Malawi and Zimbabwe, which are both unique countries in the area of internet governance.

In the build-up to the IGF meeting, we were enrolled in a preparatory workshop on internet governance facilitated by DW Akademie, where several important and emerging issues in internet governance were tackled, among them the internet governance ecosystem, which may at first glance appear to be a long winding connection of abstract players.

The IGF meeting itself was officially opened at a colourful, well-organised ceremony on the afternoon of 10 November with several speeches from selected delegates and government representatives from various countries – including China – whose representative did not miss the opportunity to reiterate the eastern giant's often controversial views on freedom of expression online.

Unique to this session was the review of the WSIS+10, which was simply an introspection of the achievement of the resolutions (such as the IGF) of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

There were several well attended side sessions taking place simultaneously during the IGF. It would appear that issues of cyber security, privacy and net-neutrality were most salient with the some sessions almost ending in physical altercations.

I realized, from one of the sessions on net neutrality, just how lightly this topic has been considered previously despite having a serious impact not only on telecom regulation in Africa, but also on increasing internet access if handled properly.

One outstanding question in net neutrality was on the issue of zero rating, which is, in effect, toll-free or sponsored data through waiving charges for use of certain (selected) applications or internet services by mobile network operators (MNOs), Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) among others.

Clearly – if Africa is to increase internet access for the many inhabitants in Africa then zero rating could be one of the few steps towards achievement of this objective. This is, of course, in addition to other initiatives such as infrastructure development, digital literacy and development of relevant content. I speak of its contribution to increasing internet access, especially in light of the fact that Zambia is one of the countries in which the Internet.org ('Freebasics') has an active agreement with Airtel.

There are obviously risks and concerns attached to zero-rating. After the exhaustive sessions at the IGF, I am clearly undecided and left feeling on the fence, considering which outweighs the other.

Of course, if zero-rating is to be encouraged, then there must be control initiatives, such as the allowance of several players to zero rate, setting up packages that allow access to the wider internet and also increasing competition so that cost of data, which is usually high, can be reduced.

Noteworthy for me in one of the sessions was the need to closely consider net neutrality and not merely advocate [for it] from a general perspective; that net neutrality shouldn't be about a few rules but about achievement of a mutually beneficial situation.

Another session of interest was on African internet rights, which was basically reviewing Africa's stand in claiming the wider rights with regard to the internet. I noted from the session – which was unsurprisingly mostly attended by Africans – that Africa now needs to claim rights beyond advocating for access alone as that will allow for true enjoyment of the internet.

It is evident from a participant's point of view that cybersecurity, privacy and freedom of expression online are issues worth serious consideration even beyond the IGF, as they came up in most of the conversations, being cross-cutting issues.

Finally, it was enlightening to discover that different nations/regions have their own problems with the multi-stakeholder model and there is currently a lot of discussion around how to truly engage in multi-stakeholder internet governance.

One thing that is obvious and comes up as the lesson to take home is that internet governance should not be looked at as an event (specifically as the IGF), but as a process involving a whole eco-system of stakeholders, players and rules that allow for the 'interoperability' of the internet.

And, of course, one hasn't really been to Brazil if they have not tasted the waters and vibrant beach life, the rich Samba music and dance as we got to experience the true spirit of Paraiba on our last day, when we explored literally everything Joao Pessoa had to offer.

For now, we look forward to the Southern African Internet Governance Forum which is scheduled to take place in Harare in a few weeks and will likely be a vibrant meeting given the discussions at the global IGF.

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