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Understanding the African declaration on internet rights and freedom

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Digital Rights’ is fast becoming a global buzz phrase. Many are either presenting it or regarding it as a nouveau concept.

What may, however, not be understood is that the concept of digital rights is not too far from the pre-existing and traditional concept of human rights – a concept as old as mankind.

It, in fact, turns out that the focus is not so much on “Digital Rights” than it is on “Human Rights”.

And so, what the advocates for digital rights are simply saying is: ‘respect human rights on digital platforms and online.’

Digital Responsibilities, on the other hand, although not directly discussed frequently, are inherent in the existence of digital rights.

This is because, rights must not only be vested on the subject of right (a.k.a. The person of inherence), but also duties on the person of incidence.

Whether or not a person is entitled to a right or bound by a duty largely depends on the subjective situation.

While the saying “where your right stops, mine starts”, is a common saying, I’ll modify to say, “where my right starts, your duty begins”.

Across the world, there are several documents, legislations, declarations, treaties – either binding or non-binding, persuasive or authoritative, which aim to list, guarantee and even explain digital rights.

Even here in Nigeria, the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill (HB. 490), a positive legislation of international standard, has been passed by the national assembly and is awaiting presidential assent.

The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms, prepared by the digital rights community, does a beautiful job of not only iterating specific internet rights and freedoms but also expatiating on their application; responsibilities which behove.

Although the document does not originate from an authoritative body and neither does it bind African states or persons who endorse it, it definitely serves (and should serve) as a policy-making and internet governance aid across the continent.

Some of the principles and rights discussed in the declaration are highlighted:

Internet Access and Affordability

Right: Every person who wishes to access the internet must be able to and said internet services should be affordable without discrimination on grounds such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, opinion, nationality, social origin, birth status and so on.

Responsibility: No person, organization or government should deter any person from using the internet.

The government should support and must not hinder the establishment of infrastructure to facilitate high-speed Internet access.

There must be no shutdowns, or disruptions to connectivity.

2. Freedom of Expression

Right: Every person is entitled to hold opinions without interference; and this will include the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds through the Internet and digital technologies regardless of geographical boundaries.

Responsibility: Every person, government, or organization is bound to respect the expression of other people’s opinions – whether they be shocking or rude.

The government especially must not stifle anti-government expressions, both by individuals and the press.

3. Freedom of Assembly and Association

Right: Everyone must have the right to use the internet and digital technologies in relation to freedom of assembly and association including through social networks and platforms.

Responsibility: No one is allowed to restrict the usage of and access to the internet and digital technologies in relation to the right to freedom of assembly and association.

Hence, everyone should enjoy unrestricted access to the Internet.

4. Privacy and Personal Data Protection

Right: Everyone has the right to privacy online which includes the right to remain anonymous and which further includes the right to the protection of person data concerning him or her.

Responsibility: No one, especially the government, must prevent internet users from using secure, private and anonymous communication. Every data custodian must take careful measures in protecting data in its care.

The collection, retention, use and disclosure of personal data or information must comply with a transparent privacy policy.

Mass or indiscriminate surveillance of individuals or the monitoring of their communications, constitutes a disproportionate interference, and thus a violation, of the right to privacy, freedom of expression and other human rights.

5. Gender Equality
Right: No gender must be discriminated against – persons of every gender must be allowed equal opportunity to learn about, define, access, use and shape the internet.

Responsibility: No one must prevent anyone from the use and access of the internet on the basis of their gender.

Wide-ranging efforts, including comprehensive legislation on rights to equality before the law and to non-discrimination, education, social dialogue and awareness-raising, should be the primary means to address the underlying problems of gender inequality and discrimination.

The Declaration is undoubtedly an important development in the effort to entrench digital rights in Africa. Nigeria as a country has an opportunity to be one of the first countries on earth to codify these principles.

The Digital Rights and Freedom Bill presents an opportunity both for the government and citizens alike in the use and development of the internet and ever evolving technologies. Let’s go make history!

• Adeboro Odunlami is a digital rights advocate with Paradigm Initiative, a social enterprise dedicated to deepening digital rights and inclusion in Africa. Comments and questions can be submitted to media@paradigmhq.org or via twitter @ParadigmHQ.


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