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This post first appeared on Sherifah Tumusiime’s blog.

The title of this post was meant to be “Africa, where net neutrality goes to die”, a statement I jacked off my friend, Marcello. I was supposed to write a post explaining how ISPs in Africa have embraced zero rating and are actively pushing for differential pricing of OTT services such as WhatsApp as well as the dangers of Free Basics. Echoing the war cry of many digital rights activists in India who managed to have it banned from their country.

All this was before 18th February, election day for Uganda. The fateful day that my government turned my beautiful nation into a frightening mimic of North Korea, blocking access to Social Media (read Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, apparently movements cannot be started on Instagram or SnapChat) and mobile money (money transfer services via mobile phone) for 4 days. Their reason; security. According to the President, people (enemies of state) use these mediums to propagate lies. And he doesn’t like lies. Abhors them in fact. So much so, he’d rather we all went back to expensive and rudimentary means of communication.  Interestingly enough, many government entities continued to use said mediums to communicate. I guess to address the 1.5 million Ugandans who had bypassed the blockade using VPNs.

But what does this say about our state of digital rights? According to Wikipedia, The term digital rights describes the human rights that allow individuals to access, use, create, and publish digital media or to access and use computers, other electronic devices, or communications networks.

Then there is the Right to Internet Access; also known as the right to broadband, it states that all people must be able to access the Internet in order to exercise and enjoy their rights to Freedom of expression and opinion and other fundamental human rights, that states have a responsibility to ensure that Internet access is broadly available, and that states may not unreasonably restrict an individual’s access to the Internet.

A United Nations report released 16th May 2011 stated that disconnecting people from the internet is a human rights violation and against international law. It also protested blocking internet access to quell political unrest.

I took out the essential articles in the document and highlighted for emphasis;

  1. While blocking and filtering measures deny users access to specific content on the Internet, States have also taken measures to cut off access to the Internet entirely. The Special Rapporteur considers cutting off users from Internet access, regardless of the justification provided, including on the grounds of violating intellectual property rights law, to be disproportionate and thus a violation of article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

  2. The Special Rapporteur calls upon all States to ensure that Internet access is maintained at all times, including during times of political unrest. In particular, the Special Rapporteur urges States to repeal or amend existing intellectual copyright laws which permit users to be disconnected from Internet access, and to refrain from adopting such laws.

Clearly, this is no longer a matter of discriminatory access projects like Facebook’s Free Basics. The state has turned against its own. It disregarded the fact that many (if not most in this fledgling economy) businesses depend entirely on social media and the fact that this is now our primary mode of communication. Instead of breeding calm, it spread fear and panic among the citizens. The saddest thing about this is that the President said this was a test. The state can go to greater lengths. All in the name of stifling dissent, which makes me wonder what that bodes for even the investors. If your services can be shut down on a whim, is it really worth your while?

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The removal or censorship of Internet is in essence a breach of the human right to freedom of speech. The Egyptian government shut down the Internet a number of times during the 18-day uprising in Egypt in a meek attempt to stifle the protests during the Arab Spring. And even though services were only cut off for a few days, this hampered Egyptians ability to access basic services like ambulances. I shudder to imagine what would have happened had severe violence actually broken out in many parts of the country with the blockade still in place.

But I have hope, the thing I love most about technology is that evolves, quickly. Luckily, governments (especially African) rarely do. Therefore, like off the grid solutions for electricity are starting to proliferate the continent so will “Off-telecom-infrastructure” solutions for internet start to rise. Already, there’s the Google loon project and Facebook’s Aquila.

Change is coming!

PS: I’ll be speaking about all things #NetNeutrality4Africa at this year’s RightsCon so I’m going to be writing a bit a lot.

Photo Credit: Backbone Campaign via Compfight cc

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