Providing and limiting freedom

Digital technologies have become relevant for accessing services as well as exercising one’s human rights. The interests of many different groups are involved. Unfortunately, digital technology can also contribute to violating human rights.
Kenya’s digitalisation is internationally appreciated: iHub Nairobi. Photoshot/picture-alliance Kenya’s digitalisation is internationally appreciated: iHub Nairobi.

The situation is particularly complex in developing countries like Kenya. Digital technologies enable people to leapfrog from conventional methods of accessing information and services to up-to-date ones. Options that were previously limited to only a small part of Kenya’s population are available to many more people. The mobile phone has been the frontrunner of this development; it has helped people to overcome infrastructure gaps.

Kenya’s digitalisation is appreciated internationally. According to the Communications Authority of Kenya, there are almost 38 million mobile telephony subscriptions, with a mobile penetration of 88.1 %. An estimated 22 million internet subscriptions reach out to 32 million users, of whom 99 % rely on mobile devices.  

Mobile phones have given millions of Kenyans access to financial services. Only 29 % of adults have a bank account, but 68 % use mobile money services. Women benefit in particular.

Democracy and technology

In many developing countries, the advancement of democracy is closely tied to the advancement of digital technologies. In Kenya, the awareness of our new constitution’s bill of rights has improved due to digital communication, and so has its enforcement.  

Mobile technology provides opportunities to exercise rights such as the freedom of expression. Citizens connect and interact online, share grievances and political opinions, express dissent and mobilise for action. The audience that engages in public discourse has grown bigger and more diverse.

This matters in a country like Kenya, where free expression is sometimes punished in spite of constitutional guarantees. Digital communication gives many people a sense of security and anonymity that motivates them to express themselves freely. It is worrying, however, that intimidation and arbitrary arrests of bloggers are becoming more frequent.

The new media is particularly significant in times when state agencies disrupt conventional media coverage, for instance because of elections or political unrest. This is a recurring issue in Kenya – from the post-election violence in 2007/08 to recent terror attacks. Digital technology allows people to stay connected and informed nonetheless.

One positive example is the Ushahidi crisis-mapping platform. It emerged after the 2007 elections, when mainstream media neither informed Kenyans properly about results nor the violent aftermath that swept the country. A network of peer-to-peer information sharing was set up, relying on text messages, e-mail and other forms of digital communication. Verified information was put on a map of the country, and anyone with internet access could check it out.  

Double-edged sword

However, the very platforms that foster the exercise of human rights can also be used to repress fundamental rights. Government agencies, private-sector companies, terrorists and criminal organisations increasingly threaten the security, openness and freedom of digital exchange. The privacy and security of users are under attack. Growing online extremism and terrorism recruitment are compounding problems.

Some argue that “offline security” is more important than digital privacy. Such reasoning, however, is often exaggerated. It resonates with many people however. In Kenya, it is widely believed that more digital surveillance, biometric IDs and closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems are needed to ensure national security.  In a recent survey, 75 % of respondents agreed that law enforcement agencies should have the right to access citizens’ online communication for national security reasons.

Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that recent state investment in CCTV equipment was widely accepted as progress. In fact, concerns by legislators and citizens alike only focused on the process through which the government contract was issued, without mentioning the risks of the new equipment being used to violate human rights.  

Furthermore, Kenyan laws were amended, explicitly limiting the constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy. Government agencies are now allowed to intercept communications “directly relevant in the detecting, deterring and disrupting of terrorism”.

Kenya’s High Court ruled that some clauses that limited the publication of terrorism-related information were unconstitutional, but the clauses that expanded the state’s surveillance powers were left intact. Even the digitally connected and informed did not protest.

Today, Kenya is one of only two African countries that enjoy “internet freedom”, according to the US-based watchdog organisation Freedom House (2015). The other one is South Africa. However, Kenya has only few laws to protect its internet freedom. A data protection bill, for instance, has been ready for adoption for over two years, yet is caught up in red tape. Moreover, Kenya must do more to protect the freedom of speech.


Unequal access

In an increasingly digital world, access to communication devices and to the internet is crucial. Efforts to widen access in developing countries are known as “connecting the next billion”. The issue has attracted the attention of private companies. They want to complement or supplement government action. An important issue is whether the technologies and strategies they employ will really ensure that the unconnected get the right to access free, open and secure technologies. As the purchasing power of the people concerned is low, profit-driven businesses are not normally interested in them.

Indeed, some private-sector initiatives have run into criticism because they do not provide full services to everyone. One example is Facebook’s Free Basics programme, which provides poor people only with a pre-selected range of internet options (see box).

Some governments of developing countries make laudable efforts to improve affordable access to digital technologies. In Kenya, the Universal Service Fund is administered and managed by the government. Levies on telecom providers, licence payments, government appropriations, grants and donations serve to finance it. The Fund’s purpose is to finance national projects in order to improve availability of – and access to – information and communication technologies in remote rural areas as well as poor urban quarters. The Fund focuses on special target groups such as women and persons with disabilities. The emphasis is on groups who, so far, remain offline. They should get the same benefits and rights as those who are able to go online.

The scenarios presented above are not unique to Kenya. They play a role in developing and developed nations alike. Proposed laws on cyber security across the globe are a cause for concern, as they often mean weaker protection of human rights. A recurring theme is that one should cede rights for the sake of security. And while human rights are increasingly recognised in national and international laws, it remains an uphill battle to make all state agencies respect and uphold them. This is especially true in developing countries.

Nanjira Sambuli is the outgoing Research Lead at iHub, Nairobi, where she has been providing strategic guidance for growth of technology research in the East Africa region. She is interested in understanding the impacts of ICT on governance, innovation, entrepreneurship and societal culture in Africa and cooperates with agencies like the GIZ to do so.  
Twitter: @Ninanjira



Freedom House: Freedom on the net 2015.

Ushahidi crisis-mapping platform:

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