A fundamental challenge in need of urgent resolution in the digital age is how to protect human rights and freedoms on the Internet, and the African continent is no exception. The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms was developed in response to this challenge.
Access to the Internet is increasing rapidly across the African continent, with millions of individuals getting online and engaging on a wide range of issues on social media and in other digital platforms –including political matters, governance, and social and economic development, among others.
As in other parts of the world, many African countries are beginning to adopt policies, regulations or laws to regulate and, in some cases, control the Internet. In effect, many African countries are transitioning from a low regulatory Internet environment to what is fast becoming a heavily regulated environment.
Often, these laws and regulations not only fail to protect human rights but violate established human rights norms and principles without adequate safeguards.
It is therefore clear that many governments in Africa lack both the technical and legal resources to legislate appropriately and the political will to provide comprehensive protection to human rights in context of the Internet and digital technologies.
Much of the effort to regulate the Internet and online activities appears to replicate some practices from other countries which do not protect and promote human rights in relation to the Internet and digital technologies. The tendency has been for many African governments to take problematic laws from other countries or other regions and apply them with few or no changes. Invariably, the contexts and local conditions in the countries where such laws have been adopted are very different from those where the laws were originally developed.
In addition, the policy and legislative processes in most African countries lack meaningful mechanisms for inclusive participation, with the result that many critical stakeholders, particularly from civil society, are frequently excluded.
The consequence has been the adoption of instruments which tend to invade privacy, repress freedom of expression online and violate other rights, such as the right to a fair hearing in a court of law. An analysis of these instruments shows that they often impose sanctions to punish certain types of behaviour without the requirement for due process.
Although there is a legitimate desire by governments to curb criminal activities online, particularly financial crimes and terrorist activities, there are also clear instances where the pursuit of these apparently legitimate objectives has been used as a pretext to introduce provisions to curtail criticism of governments.
The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms therefore seeks to promote human rights standards and principles of openness in Internet policy formulation and implementation on the continent.
The Declaration was motivated by the need to develop and agree on a set of principles which would inform, and hopefully inspire, policy and legislative processes on Internet rights, freedoms and governance in Africa. The principles are expected to have broad application at national, sub-regional and regional levels. In this way, the Declaration aims to cultivate an Internet environment that conforms to established human rights standards and can best meet Africa’s social and economic development needs and goals.